Objective To better understand the origins, manifestations and current policy responses to patient–physician mistrust in China.
Design Qualitative study using in-depth interviews focused on personal experiences of patient–physician mistrust and trust.
Setting Guangdong Province, China.
Participants One hundred and sixty patients, patient family members, physicians, nurses and hospital administrators at seven hospitals varying in type, geography and stages of achieving goals of health reform. These interviews included purposive selection of individuals who had experienced both trustful and mistrustful patient–physician relationships.
Results One of the most prominent forces driving patient–physician mistrust was a patient perception of injustice within the medical sphere, related to profit mongering, knowledge imbalances and physician conflicts of interest. Individual physicians, departments and hospitals were explicitly incentivised to generate revenue without evaluation of caregiving. Physicians did not receive training in negotiating medical disputes or humanistic principles that underpin caregiving. Patient–physician mistrust precipitated medical disputes leading to the following outcomes: non-resolution with patient resentment towards physicians; violent resolution such as physical and verbal attacks against physicians; and non-violent resolution such as hospital-mediated dispute resolution. Policy responses to violence included increased hospital security forces, which inadvertently fuelled mistrust. Instead of encouraging communication that facilitated resolution, medical disputes sometimes ignited a vicious cycle leading to mob violence. However, patient–physician interactions at one hospital that has implemented a primary care model embodying health reform goals showed improved patient–physician trust.
Conclusions The blind pursuit of financial profits at a systems level has eroded patient–physician trust in China. Restructuring incentives, reforming medical education and promoting caregiving are pathways towards restoring trust. Assessing and valuing the quality of caregiving is essential for transitioning away from entrenched profit-focused models. Moral, in addition to regulatory and legal, responses are urgently needed to restore trust.
- QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
- PUBLIC HEALTH
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