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Who cares for the village doctors?

By Zhang Zhilong (Global Times)

16:12, February 19, 2013

Shi Huaiqing gives out medicine to an elderly patient in his village clinic on February 14 in Luochuan county, Shaanxi Province.(Global Times/Zhang Zhilong)

Believing that their situation will one day improve, village doctors are working tirelessly to better the health conditions of rural areas. Shi Huaiqing is one of this group of about one million village doctors.

Shi, 52, hails from the village of Shijiagelao in Luochuan county, near the city of Yan'an in Shaanxi Province. He has been a doctor for 35 years and has been responsible ever since for the village's 268 households.

Shi felt deep regret over the death of a 30-year-old villager, who died during the Spring Festival holiday, after a night of drinking alcohol.

"It took me nine minutes to get to his house from when I got the phone call," he sighed. "If I had advanced medical instruments to help him breathe, if I …" Shi's voice trailed away as it would several times during the interview.

Shi was unable to fall asleep or to eat anything, afflictions that commonly haunt him when he is too busy visiting elderly or child patients in the dead of night. Such late house calls are routine for Shi. On the eve of Spring Festival, he visited one elderly woman at 2 am and a child an hour later. When people are celebrating the festival and the public hospital doesn't receive patients, turning to Shi is their only recourse.

Shi's plight is similar to that of Zhang Tao, 38, another village doctor from Wujiazhuang, with over 300 families.

"I often can't fall asleep after I come back from house visits, but I've become used to it," Zhang told the Global Times. He keeps close contact with Shi and regards him as an "idol."

Shi once met Li Keqiang, the incoming premier of the State Council, at the Great Hall of the People with 12 other village doctors selected from all over the country on January 5, 2010. He was also chosen as one of the four representatives to meet the press after the meeting.

He has been awarded many honors, and on the wall of his clinic hangs the group photo the village doctors took with Li.

While talking to the Global Times, he took several phone calls and received three villagers, all within half an hour.

"I enjoy being a doctor, and I'll keep learning to improve my medical skills," said Shi to the Global Times in his village clinic. However, he added that his medical expertise could not keep pace with the times. "Not only do we need training, but we need regular training," he said.

Major concerns

The job does involve some risks, considering the increasing number of disputes between doctors and patients in recent years.

"We're afraid of potential risks. Often, I am nervous about taking on a patient even if I am confident I can cure them," Shi said, adding that this definitely has increased the economic burden on villagers since they often have to travel far to town or county hospitals.

Salaries are low, which is why so few young doctors choose this path as a career. Shi is worried that no one is willing to take his position, including his son.

Shi receives 10,000 yuan ($1,605) a year in subsidies, which is much better than the situation years ago when he and Zhang barely earned 60 yuan a month. But despite this improvement, it is still far from enough. "In some mountainous areas, the subsidies are reasonable to encourage village doctors to keep working but in my county it's difficult," said Shi.

Luochuan county is well-known for its apples that sell internationally. This has allowed local farmers to boost their income, with flash cars appearing around the villages. This has meant that the subsidies for village doctors have paled in comparison to the yearly income of local families.

If it weren't for Shi and Zhang's wives making extra money working on their apple farms, the two doctors would have trouble supporting their families.

In May 2012, when local people were busy trimming the apples to ensure the larger ones grow to term, Zhang was awoken at 11 at night.

A 9-year-old boy was suffering from a high fever. Zhang only returned home hours later and gave up on his night's sleep.

"So long as I take on the job, I must try my best to do it well," he said. This is a pet phrase among village doctors, since Ma Wenfang also expressed this attitude to the Global Times in a phone interview.

Ma, 62, is from Suliuzhuang village, Tongxu county, Henan Province. He has been a doctor for over 40 years. "No matter how many honors I've got, I'm still a farmer and a village doctor. I'm always proud of this," he said.

Ma is a representative at the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC) but still receives patients from his village and the surrounding areas.

Besides the poor salaries earned by village doctors, what most concerns Ma is who will take up the post when doctors like him retire. Ma has an idea about how to attract young graduates to work in the countryside.

"Village doctors should have a similar salary and social welfare as those working in town and county hospitals," he proposed.

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