Television doctors

TV shows used to improve doctor-patient relations in Chinese hospitals

Wang Luodan-w

Smooth operator: Wang Luodan stars as a surgeon in ER Doctors

Doctors in China get attacked so often that some local governments have hired armed police to guard their hospitals. Now the central authorities are trying a different approach: television.

In recent months there has been an explosion in medical reality shows and dramas.

Despite the fact they are part of a government propaganda campaign, they have been generally well received, gaining high ratings on the review website Douban.

Take This is Life, a 13-part fly-on-the-wall documentary filmed on the maternity ward of a public hospital in Wuhan. It follows the work of Li Jiafu, chief of obstetrics, and his team.

In one episode, a 30 year-old woman with liver disease is transferred to Li’s ward because she is bleeding profusely. The baby is born but the mother requires an operation to stop the haemorrhage. The family need to find Rmb20,000 ($3,156) for the surgery and the doctors want to notify her husband, who is said to be working in another city and cannot be reached.

The days tick on and the woman’s health is deteriorating. Eventually, after hours of talking to the family, convincing them that the operation is vital, it transpires the husband is in prison. Li then writes a letter that enables one of the family members to access emergency funds from his local community. At one point doctor Li says: “You can’t leave this child without a mother. We hope you can mobilise your resources and ask the neighbourhood committee or other channels to raise this money.”

The final hurdle is convincing the woman, who is worried about the cost and medical implications of the operation, to agree to surgery.

The series shows how much of Chinese doctoring today is having to think about things other than treating sick people.

After a series of physical attacks on doctors in recent years they are worried about their personal safety, and the need to cover themselves legally to avoid being sued.

The spectre of money is ever present – because in most cases patient insurance only covers the basics. The doctors don’t set the prices, but they have to spend hours explaining why things cost what they do, helping patients find funds, and worrying that ill people won’t get the care they need because families can’t afford it.

Another highly rated show is On Call 120, which follows the work of first responders in an older district of Shanghai.

The patients are often elderly and live in dilapidated or crowded housing, where there are no lifts.

The ambulance teams sometimes have to carry patients down several flights of stairs in 40-degree heat. They also need to deal with abuse from family members and sometimes have to intercede in personal matters – such as the time when a paramedic gets on the phone to beg an estranged son to come to see his father in hospital before he dies. He refuses and the paramedic is crushed.

Another series ER Doctors deals with the issue of violence against doctors head on. When the lead character in the drama – a young Western-trained idealist named Jiang Xiaoqi – fails to save an elderly woman, her son hits the medic and throws her against a wall. In another episode a group of thugs gather in the hospital lobby demanding compensation for a patient’s death.

According to a government white paper released in January there were over 4,000 “public security” events in Chinese hospitals between May 2016 and May 2017.

All three series attempt to prevent violent flare-ups by showcasing the professionalism and dedication of Chinese medical staff. The shows have been widely promoted by state media in the belief they help create a “harmonious” relationship between doctor and patient.

On Call 120 was even made with the help of Shanghai’s’ propaganda department and most of the shows have had input from the Chinese Medical Association.

Yet this relatively new TV genre appears to have won over many viewers. “So moving,” wrote one of This is Life. “More shows like this,” said another.

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