Three doctors at an occupational disease hospital in Guizhou have reportedly been detained by police for seven months for allegedly misdiagnosing hundreds of cases of pneumoconiosis and defrauding the local government of 30 million yuan in social insurance funds.
The police action has been widely condemned by both lawyers and the medical profession who pointed out that there are well-established procedures for checking occupational disease diagnoses in the event of a query and that the police had no need to get involved.
Critics further pointed out that the doctors concerned received no financial benefit from their actions and that the police investigation only focused on about 500 of the 1,640 pneumoconiosis diagnoses made at the Guizhou Aerospace Hospital in Zunyi between 2012 and 2016.
Guizhou Aerospace Hospital
The Chinese Medical Doctor Association (中国医师协会) warned that all doctors diagnosing pneumoconiosis cases would now be under tremendous pressure because their actions may result in them being accused of a crime.
The case will also have a chilling effect on workers with pneumoconiosis who are trying to get an official diagnosis from an occupational disease clinic and thus qualify for compensation from either their employer or the local government’s work-related injury fund.
Pneumoconiosis is by far the most prevalent occupational disease in China, accounting for around 90 percent of all cases. However, it is notoriously difficult for workers to get an official diagnosis and confirmation of occupational disease due to the complicated bureaucratic procedures involved and the corrupting influence of employers on the adjudication process.
As CLB pointed out in our 2010 research report The Hard Road: Seeking justice for victims of pneumoconiosis in China, collusion between hospitals and employers to supress cases of pneumoconiosis is commonplace, as is using economic leverage and political connections to block workers from obtaining any compensation. It is commonly accepted that only about ten percent of workers with pneumoconiosis ever get officially recognised as having an occupational disease and therefore qualify for compensation.
One of the key problem has always been that the vast majority of workers with pneumoconiosis are migrants from poor rural areas such as Guizhou. They worked in mines, on construction sites and dust-filled factories with little or no protection and were simply abandoned by their employer when they got sick.
The workers then had no option but to apply for compensation from their local government. And in nearly all cases, these cash-strapped local governments have been unwilling to give workers any more than charitable assistance. Recognising occupational disease could lead to a drain on already depleted social insurance funds, as appears to be the case in Guizhou, where only 25,000 workers received work-related injury payments, amounting to 1.19 billion yuan, in 2016, according to official statistics. Guizhou has a population of 35.5 million.
Another factor in the Guizhou case however might be the influence of a major local company. China’s best-known liquor manufacturer Kweichow Moutai is based near Zunyi and was faced with hundreds of pneumoconiosis cases related to the construction of new plants and facilities in and around Zunyi in the 2010s. However, there is no evidence so far that the detention of the doctors is in any way related to the Moutai pneumoconiosis cases.