At last the Chinese authorities have stepped in to protect the much harried nurses.
Disputes between patients and hospitals are common in China, so much so that the health ministry recorded about 10,000 attacks on hospital staff in 2006 alone, according to state media.
Rules published Monday warn that anyone who impedes nurses from performing their duties or who insults, threatens or assaults them, "must be punished according to the law," the official Xinhua news agency said.
The rules, which take effect on May 12, also better define nurses' responsibilities and clarify the requirements for becoming a licensed nurse, it said.
"Nurses are an important component of the medical force and their work is closely tied to medical security and people's health," Xinhua quoted an unnamed official with the cabinet's legal affairs office as saying. "It is very important to attract qualified staff to this sector."
The cabinet also demanded that hospitals hire enough full-time nurses instead of relying on part-time ones, and that local governments improve their salaries and working conditions.
The end of cradle-to-grave health care and lax supervision have contributed to widespread complaints about overcharging, bogus treatments and corruption in hospitals -- with nurses often bearing the brunt of any frustration among patients.
Doctors and nurses at a hospital in eastern Jiangsu province said after a spate of assaults last year that they would use police truncheons and wear helmets to protect themselves.
In November, more than 200 nurses signed a petition after a local female official in the central province of Henan and her sister confined four nurses for more than five hours, accusing them of being responsible for the death of her brother-in-law, a cancer patient.
The nurses had changed the patient's bed sheets, which the women believed had led to his death, state media said.