Sunday, 3 April 2016

Three vastly different articles on medical disputes - which one gets closest to the truth?

Violent and disruptive medical disputes have become so common in China that they barely rate a mention in the media any more. There has to be something quite different about an attack on doctors for it to make the headlines these days. The recent incident in which a mob of disgruntled relatives of a former patient took over a Shenzhen hospital and forced doctors to kowtow to a 'shrine' was one such incident.

In response, the Chinese authorities have said they will now adopt a new zero-tolerance approach to such protests and attacks on healthcare staff.

"Vice Public Security Minister Huang Ming said police will crack down on hospital-related crimes and show zero tolerance to perpetrators who assault and injure medical personnel. He made the remarks at a meeting on safeguarding order at hospitals and promoting harmonious doctor-patient relations on Thursday."

Ho hum - we've heard it all before. Every time there is a violent attack on hospital staff there are pledges to crack down, strike hard etc etc. A few weeks later it is business as usual. As I've written on this blog before, nothing will change until the government addresses underlying reasons for these disputes: under-resourcing of hospitals leading to ridiculously high throughput of patients - 3 minute consultations in which patients are barely listened to and prescribed the most expensive treatments (so that the hospital can get a bigger profit).

According to the latest empty promise to 'take action' the minister Huang "ordered better settlement of medical disputes by taking precautions, conducting risk assessment and spotting and containing disputes at an early stage." Gee thanks.

The article also makes the implausible claim that the number of hospital-related cases of violence continued has fallen four years in a row, and is down 12.7 percent year on year. The reality is quite the opposite.

And while on the subject of propaganda, the Hong Kong based SCMP, always keen to peddle a  more palatable version of Beijing's policies to foreigners, this week has an interview with a doctor who believes the answer to medical disputes is in looking to China's history. In a Q&A article, journalist Zhuang Ping throws a few easy questions to Dr Yang Zhen, a surgeon and deputy chief of the hospital administration office in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Hospital.

Dr Yang says China should take a look at how doctors in China traditionally established good relations with patients. Other than a few glib statements about being nice to patients and showing a more human face, he doesn't explain how doctors will make this happen when they have to rush through 80-120 patients in one short shift ( and prescribe enough drugs to them to hit their salary bonus target). All pretty worthy sounding but meaningless, really.

The article with the greatest insight into China's medical disputes in published in an academic journal (Health Economics, Policy and Law) and is based on interviews with 12 doctors from a multitude of specialties working in Shenzhen.

Interestingly, the article starts off by directly contradicting the claims of the public security minister,  quoting figures from the China Hospital Association showing that the number of medical disputes has increased by about 20% a year.

"Once worshiped as ‘angels in white,’ members of the medical profession in China are facing unprecedented challenges. Due to the deteriorated public trust during the marketisation reforms of the last three decades, Chinese physicians are working in an antagonistic environment. Heavy workload, low remuneration, and tainted social prestige have left millions of physicians feeling undervalued and
made medicine a career to be avoided, a situation rarely seen in other Confucian societies," it notes.

The article makes several points about medical disputes that have been raised before - but also includes one new one that is unique and potentially game changing.

The authors say that whatever the causes, medical disputes are rarely settled through legal channels, despite there being an officially recommended dispute resolution pathway and laws that in theory should cover medicolegal areas of dispute. The reality is that patients and their families have found that they are much more likely to get results - and get them much faster - if they take matters into their own hands. In other words, mob rule. According to the article, aggrieved patients and relatives of those affected by medical misadventure have found that they can get financial compensation and see their grievances gain attention if they take violent and disruptive action against hospitals and their staff. In practice this means staging demonstrations, blockading departments - and even whole hospitals - and threatening staff. They do it because it works.

This is the testimony of one of the doctors interviewed:

"Because the macro political environment attaches paramount importance to the so-called
‘maintenance of social stability,’ hospital managers are very afraid of high-profile incidents because local government may blame them for failing to mitigate the tension. If payment can quench patients’ anger, hospital managers would certainly love to do that, even when the patients are obviously blackmailing them. Patients also know the hospitals’ mentality very well, and actually take advantage of it. Some have chosen to stage farcical protests because doing so best maximized their interests. In fact, they deliberately avoided legal resolution because they knew hospitals would satisfy their monetary demands anyway."

The article goes on to say that hospitals fear high-profile protests because of the detrimental impact on their reputation, (which would inevitably affect their income) and also the political mandate imposed by local government to avoid mass incidents.

"They are also generally reluctant to resort to legal channels as litigation will not only ruin their reputation, but also consume a great deal of energy and time. Many studies have identified private settlement as the most popular means of resolution, even when patients’ complaints are clearly
unreasonable," it says.

In a second part of the study, two thirds of 300 doctors surveyed described relations with patients as 'very tense' and a similar proportion (65%) had been physically assaulted at least in the previous year.

The authors of the study say there are several key lessons for preventing and managing medical disputes in China. First and foremost is the need to reduced doctors' workload to a level where they have time to interact with patients and spend a meaningful amount of time with patients to allow good communication, adequate assessment and diagnosis and explanation of medical matters so that patients can make 'informed choices'.

Secondly, there is an urgent need to remove the profit/bonus incentives for doctors so that they paid according to their performance on good clinical practice rather than on how many drugs they have prescribed.

The study authors have a rather bleak outlook about the possibility of curbing attacks on healthcare staff - at least in the short-to-medium turn:

"For decades, health policy reform proposals have always put financing reforms, realignment of provider incentives, or organizational restructuring first. However, the [medical dispute] crisis in China shows policymakers and advisors the detrimental consequences of hostile interactions between doctors and patients. While it is not unreasonable to expect systemic reforms to restore trust between the two parties, one must bear in mind that it may take much longer than anticipated to see the effects; in the meantime, the dysfunctional doctor–patient relationship continues to deteriorate," they conclude.

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