Published October 19, 2012
BEIJING – A Chinese court sentenced a teenager to life in prison Friday for killing a medical intern and stabbing three other workers at a northeastern hospital in a case seen as a symptom of frustration over a dysfunctional health care system.
Li Mengnan's knifing rampage at the hospital in March has become a focal point of anger over inadequacies in China's medical system. In handing down a heavy sentence, authorities were likely hoping to deter other similar attacks.
The father of the 28-year-old intern Li killed said in a phone interview that the outcome of the case was as he had expected.
"From a legal perspective, the court's decision was fair. But in my heart, it is still unfair," Wang Dongqing said. "My son was taken from me. Even if they had sentenced him to death, it would have been unfair."
Li, 17, typifies the patient that the ailing public health system has failed: Faced with a serious illness that could not be treated by health facilities in his native Inner Mongolia, Li turned to the best hospital in the region. But there, the teenager from a poor farming family encountered high expenses, fleeting consultations and, his relatives say, a misdiagnosis.
Despite public sympathy for the assailant, members of the medical community called for a severe punishment to show zero tolerance for violence against health workers. Many doctors rallied around the victims, saying they've been unfairly demonized by the public and media for widespread corruption that they blame on systemic factors.
Despite the Chinese government injecting more than $240 billion of extra funding into health care over the past three years, the doctor-patient relationship has continued to break down. Doctors are overworked and underpaid, and many push drug sales or charge extra for services to make more money. Patients are faced with high medical expenses, brief consultations and often poor quality care.
A court in the northeastern city of Harbin found Li guilty of intentional homicide and sentenced him Friday morning, his uncle, Li Chunming, told The Associated Press by phone. The court decided against a death sentence because he is not yet 18, the age of adulthood in China.
Li Mengnan randomly attacked medical staff with a fruit knife March 23 after accusing a doctor of refusing to provide treatment for a chronic spinal condition. He killed the intern, Wang Hao, and injured three others before trying to kill himself.
Security officials detained Li in the hospital emergency room, where he was seeking treatment for injuries he suffered in the attack.
Li told state broadcaster CCTV after he was detained that he had become frustrated with the hospital.
"My grandpa and I have been travelling to the hospitals many times with a lot of money spent and efforts paid, but I felt the doctors were just deliberately making things difficult," Li said.
Days after the attack, Health Minister Chen Zhu — whose department has come under pressure from the medical community to offer more protection for health workers — called on prosecutors to severely punish Li.
Li had been represented by a well-known rights lawyer, Li Fangping, who argued in his defense that Li was driven to violence by an earlier misdiagnosis that worsened his condition. Li Chunming said he was not sure if Li would appeal the sentencing, which included an order that Li's family pay 680,000 yuan ($110,000) in compensation to the victim's family.
Hospitals frequently become sites for protests by family members of patients who have died while undergoing treatment, often regardless of whether malpractice occurred. Angry relatives set up mourning halls inside hospital waiting areas, burn funeral money and hang banners and wreaths, demanding that the hospitals assume responsibility for the death and provide monetary compensation.