Friends and relatives of a patient who had died on the operating table marched on Nanchang Hospital No.1 brandishing pitchforks and clubs. About 100 staff members, among them young doctors, prepared for the onslaught by arming themselves with long sticks and cans of mace, while the security staff donned police vests and helmets.
What followed was a pitched battle in the lobby with horrified patients gawking from upper floors of an atrium.
Although nobody was seriously injured in Tuesday's melee, the incident brought attention to a wave of violence in Chinese public hospitals. In Nanchang, a provincial capital 300 miles southwest of Shanghai, a young doctor reportedly suffered serious skull injuries in June after the family of a deceased patient led a protest that turned violent.
Last year, a doctor and nurse were stabbed to death in Shandong province by the son of a man who had died 13 years earlier of liver cancer, while a pediatrician was badly injured jumping from a fifth floor window to escape relatives of a baby who had died.
Medical advocates complain that the more violent incidents are staged by hired thugs, paid by families of the deceased in hopes of winning compensation from the hospitals. Sometimes the protesters are from the same village or are semi-professionals in causing trouble. The Chinese have even coined a word for the paid protesters: yinao, meaning "medical disturbance."
"It has become a very sophisticated system for chasing profits. Whenever somebody dies in a hospital, the yinao will get in touch with the family and offer their servings in exchange for 30 to 40 percent," said Liu Di, who is setting up a social network for medical professionals. In Tuesday morning's incident in Nanchang, hospital staff members learned that a mob of about 100 people was heading their way with crude weapons and took it upon themselves to mount a defense in kind.
Photographs and videos posted on a local website showed men in white coats, apparently doctors, and T-shirted security guards brandishing what looked like oversize baseball bats.
"A lot of the young doctors and hospital security guards couldn't stand it anymore and decided to pick up sticks and defend themselves," a doctor from another Nanchang hospital, who gave his name as Lao Tang, wrote on his social networking site. "My fellow comrades, we fully support you! Well done!"
Zhang Yuanxin, a plaintiffs' lawyer, said it is difficult to sue for medical malpractice, even in the most egregious cases, tempting people to take matters in their own hands.