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Chinese doctors are in hot water after their surgery room glamour shots went viral

By Sonali Kohli, Gwynn Guilford
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A group of Chinese medical workers are in trouble this week, after photos they took during surgery were posted online, garnering widespread attention.

Striking a pose.

The photos, which show an unconscious patient on the operating table alongside posing medical workers, was taken in August but posted online recently, according to a statement from the department of public health (link in Chinese) in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province.


The “surgery table selfie” scandal, as it’s being called in Chinese, is the latest example of the strained relationships between the Chinese public and the country’s medical profession. Resentment over rampant bribery and scarce resources in China’s health care system has generated a wave of violent attacks on doctors and nurses in hospitals around the country.

What’s surprising about this episode is that, despite the Chinese media’s excoriation (link in Chinese) of the lapse in hygiene and lack of respect for patient privacy, the online reaction is far from one-sided.

The surgery team took the photos to commemorate the final surgery conducted in the operating room, which was about to be retired and replaced with a new operating theater, said the health department. And it was quite an finale, according to reports by Huashang News (link in Chinese), a Chinese newspaper.

The patient, a 40-year-old worker, entered surgery with his left leg so severely maimed—it was broken in several places—that in most other hospitals, amputation would have been the only option, as Dr. Zheng Xiaoju, the chief surgeon, told Huashang News. After seven and a half hours, the team saved the man’s leg.

There has been criticism about medical safety.

The hospital made a public statement promising to improve the management of its medical staff, according to the South China Morning Post (paywall). The government disciplined multiple employees at the privately-owned Fengcheng hospital in response to the photos, dismissing three hospital officials from their posts.

While many Sina Weibo commenters have criticized Dr. Zheng and her colleagues for hygiene breaches, Dr. Zheng said that she had already left the operating room when she was called back in for the photo, and due to allergies to surgical mask material, didn’t don a new one. She also told Huashang News that she hopes the pictures will help society deepen its understanding of what medical professionals experience.

That might actually be happening. Plenty of Weibo users have reacted with outrage or cynicism. However, many also supported the doctors and defended the photos, comparing them to a famous National Geographic (link in Chinese) photo of a Polish heart surgeon in 1987, struggling to track his patient’s vitals on outdated medical equipment.

Some commenters also criticized the Chinese media for its negative spin. “Doctors save people with their scalpels; the media murders people with their pens,” writes one commenter (registration required, link in Chinese).

That this defense of medical professionals comes despite the ugly antagonism toward the healthcare system of late might hint that it’s the system, not the doctors, that the public is fed up with.

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