Medical Professionalism in China and the United States:

A Transcultural Interpretation


Jing-Bao Nie, Kirk L. Smith, Yali Cong, Linying Hu, and Joseph D. Tucker


      As in other societies, medical professionalism in the Peoples’ Republic of China has been rapidly evolving. One of the major events in this process was the endorsement in 2005 of the document, “Medical Professionalism in the New Millennium: A Physician Charter,” by the Chinese Medical Doctor Association (hereafter, the Charter).1 More recently, a national survey, the first on such a large scale, was conducted on Chinese physicians’ attitudes toward the fundamental principles and core commitments put forward in the Charter. Based on empirical findings from that study and comparing them to the published results of a similar American survey, the authors offer an in-depth interpretation of significant cross-cultural differences and important transcultural commonalities. The broader historical, socio-economic, and ethical issues relating to salient Chinese cultural practices such as family consent, familism (the custom of deferring decisions to family members), and the withholding of medical information, as well as controversial topics such as not respecting patients’ autonomy, are examined. The Chinese Survey found that Chinese physicians supported the principles of the Charter in general. Here we argue that Chinese culture and traditional medical ethics are broadly compatible with the moral commitments demanded by modern medical professionalism. Methodologically and theoretically—recognizing the problems inherent in the hoary but still popular habit of dichotomizing cultures and in relativism—a transcultural approach is adopted that gives greater (due) weight to the internal moral diversity present within every culture, the common ground shared by different cultures, and the primacy of morality. Genuine cross-cultural dialogue, including a constructive Chinese-American dialogue in the area of medical professionalism, is not only possible, but necessary.


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