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UPDATED: July 21, 2015 NO.30 JULY 23, 2015
Will a New Law Curb Troublemaking in Hospitals?


In the face of increasingly frequent conflicts between patients and hospitals, in which medical staff have been hurt or even killed by disgruntled patients, Chinese legislature has taken action. It is deliberating an amendment to the country's criminal law, which will make troublemaking in hospitals a criminal offence.

These disputes occur for various reasons. Sometimes, patients have too high expectations as regards the hospital's ability to cure them, ignoring the fact that owing to the limitations of medical science, a lot of diseases remain incurable. Meanwhile, it should not be forgotten that under the current medical system, which has thrown state-owned hospitals into a state of having to support themselves, many hospitals have to sell medicine at high prices and even ask patients to go through unnecessary checkups to fund their daily operations.

Beneath the surface, complex factors underlie disputes between patients and hospitals. Particularly, when it comes to serious disputes, factors like extreme poverty of patients, mistreatment and the lack of proper channels for patients to get the disputes resolved come into play. Worse still, professional troublemakers who profiteer from doctor-patient disputes have emerged, most of whom are hired by patients to aggravate the disputes.

While some have applauded the proposed amendment as an effective step toward preventing and curbing troublemaking and a useful measure to ensure the normal running of hospitals, others, though conceding the deterrent effect of a Criminal Law intervention, are skeptical as regards its effectiveness. In their view, this new amendment will address only external symptoms rather than underlying causes.

A key step

Gu Dening (Xinhua Daily): Nowadays, attacks on medical staff are on the increase, posing a threat to their safety and disrupting the running of hospitals. How can we safeguard medical staff's safety, dignity and authority, while guaranteeing patients' rights to regular medical treatment? The first line of defense is legal protection. Without the protection of the law, no matter how much security is strengthened, it will be difficult to guard against attacks on medical staff.

Criminalizing the actions of those who attack medical staff, particularly those who profit from such activities, is a key step toward reducing incidents related to doctor-patient disputes. The new law will furnish us with a reference point as to how best to deal with those who attack and hurt medical staff in various ways. People must be made to know that in a society based on the rule of law, violence is not an option and that those who employ it will have to bear the consequences.

It goes without saying that legal penalties alone will not fundamentally solve the problem, as disputes between hospitals and patients are nowadays a widespread phenomenon. Therefore, in addition to penalizing troublemakers, it's also important to provide patients with the proper channels to resolve outstanding issues.

Luo Zhihua (Changsha Evening News): For some people, doctor-patient disputes offer an opportunity for profiteering, and they do so totally regardless of the disruption they cause to hospitals.

For quite a long time, no explicit regulations or guidelines have existed as to how to effectively deal with such disputes, particularly when they did not entail serious consequences. The amendment will make deliberately disrupting the running of hospitals by verbally and physically attacking doctors and engaging in other aggressive actions illegal. Some profiteers will thus be deterred from engaging in such behavior without so much as a second thought.

Of course, while cracking down on attacks on doctors is an urgent matter, it's also important to make it easier for those who have genuine grievances with doctors or hospitals to have problems settled through legal channels.

Yan Yang (Henan Daily): Never before have we seen such tension between hospitals and patients. Some disputes are grounded in legitimate grievances, while others are completely baseless. There are no winners in these conflicts. When medical staff are attacked and verbally or even physically injured, without a basic guarantee of safety or of professional dignity, how can we expect them to be "angels in white?" When hospitals are plagued by endless disputes, how can they be expected to offer quality services? There is a consensus that no matter what mistakes doctors and hospitals have made, patients and their relatives should not turn to violence to solve the problem. In this sense, criminalizing those who make trouble in hospitals and attack medical staff will help protect hospitals.

The act of inflicting bodily harm upon or even killing doctors is undoubtedly a crime. The amendment of the criminal law this time around may also cover actions such as gathering crowds to make trouble, setting up impromptu places of mourning in hospitals, as well as humiliating medical staff in various ways.

Currently, the penalties imposed on those who make trouble in hospitals are far too light to maintain order. Hospitals wishing to quell trouble are sometimes left with no option but to give a lot of money to the troublemakers. Taking such a soft tack may encourage more patients to make trouble should their noses be even slightly put out of joint. Worse still are the established professional hoodlums hired by patients to make trouble. If these problems are not resolved, hospitals embroiled in disputes will find it difficult to get back to business as usual.

The new law means to remind those organizing and participating in activities of the serious consequences that may arise, and to authorize law enforcement departments to take tough actions against such incidents. Meanwhile, cracking down on troublemaking does not necessarily equate to preventing patients and family members from having their grievances aired. Developing a mechanism for resolving disputes between patients and hospitals in a lawful and appropriate manner is crucial. The proposed amendment is only one element of the overall effort to settle existent disputes.

Lingering worries

Bing Lin (The Beijing Times): Disputes and conflicts between doctors and patients are so serious that the country's legal system has been forced to intervene. Take Shanghai for example. In June alone, seven cases of doctor-patient disputes were reported, with several doctors and nurses being hurt by patients and/or their family members. Although a series of regulations have been issued to ensure business as usual in hospitals, disputes nonetheless persist. Therefore, it is hoped that the introduction of the new law will help protect medical staff and the everyday running of hospitals.

However, worries still remain. To what extent can the new legislation help tackle conflicts between hospitals and patients? When the proposed amendment is passed, the Criminal Law will pose a considerable deterrent to those who wish to recourse to violence to solve disputes with hospitals. When violence is curbed, it's more likely that reasonable discussions will take place between hospitals and patients and conflicts might be resolved through legal channels.

Meanwhile, it's important to ensure that patients who take the proper route to safeguard their rights are not penalized. Also, we have to admit that the Criminal Law is incapable of tackling the underlying factors that lead to doctor-patient disputes, and a healthy relationship between the two sides necessitates that both parties get to the heart of the matter. We must face up to the various social problems that turn the two sides against each other, such as the improper distribution of medical resources and the market-oriented reform of hospitals that strips hospitals of government subsidies and turns them into primarily profit-driven institutions. If these deep-rooted problems are not addressed, legal intervention is unlikely to change much.

Zhi Feng (www.cnhubei.com): Disputes may have arisen because of mistakes made on both sides. The nature of the disputes between hospitals and patients must be clarified before the criminal punishment is carried out. If penalties were to be supplied with undue haste before the causes of the disputes can be brought to light, hospitals may use the law as a shield to evade rightful accountability. The proposed amendment, which definitely comes down on the side of hospitals, does not represent the key to disentangling conflicts.

Of course, we should not read the revision as a move to oppress patients. The target of the new law is mainly those who want to profit from disputes between hospitals and patients, particularly those with vapid claims.

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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