Surgeon dies from working too much, exposing overwork culture among Chinese doctors

Society & Culture

A Chinese doctor from Anhui Province reportedly died on December 16, 2017, at age 31, on his shift at the hospital due to constant overwork.

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According to an announcement released by the public health commision of Yu’an District, where Fang Peihu 方培虎’s hospital is located, the male surgeon collapsed on duty around midnight of that day. The cause of his sudden death has been determined as “illness triggered by long-term fatigue.”

The document also notes that over the course of Fang’s eight years as a surgeon, he always volunteered to stand by when patients needed operations, whether it was day or night. “He was like a candle, burning himself to light others,” reads the announcement.

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In addition to singing praises of Fang’s professionalism, the notice also announced a campaign to be carried out in all medical facilities in the district, in which all departments are ordered to adopt various ways to study the spirit of Fang, such as holding discussion panels and writing reports.

The decision is clearly an attempt to establish Fang as a role model for his peers to emulate, and it backfired badly in the community of Chinese medical workers, with many expressing their strong abhorrence of the idea, saying, “We don’t want to be him. We want to be alive.”

The resistance didn’t come from nowhere. According to a report about working conditions for Chinese physicians, published by the Chinese Medical Association in January, doctors at tertiary hospitals in China work an average of 51.05 hours every week, which far surpasses the standard working hours of 40 hours a week stipulated by the labor law of China. The report also found that fewer than a quarter of surveyed physicians were able to fulfill their paid annual leaves, and 4.4 percent of them didn’t even know they had such benefits.

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In 2017, more than 31 cases of doctors’ sudden deaths appeared on Chinese media. On December 30, 2017, a 43-year-old female doctor from Shanxi Province died from a massive stroke after her 18-hour nonstop overnight shift. Last month, a male doctor from Qinghai Province, also 43, lost his life after receiving 38 patients in one night without any breaks.

Earlier this year, Li Bin 李斌, chair of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said in a conference that while doctors’ mission is to protect people’s well-being, their mental and physical health should also be under good care. Li suggested “a more reasonable workload for medical workers” and “a better implementation of a vacation system” for doctors nationwide.

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Excessive hours are not just a problem exclusive to the medical industry in China. Xinhua News Agency reports that nearly 600,000 Chinese workers from various walks of life died every year from spending too much time at their jobs. Though Japan, notorious for its overtime culture, has been grappling with this problem for so many years that it even invented the word karōshi to describe the phenomenon of people working themselves to death, data suggest that China has overtaken Japan as the country that has the highest number of deaths attributed to overwork in recent years.