China Power

Chinese Medicine

China is undertaking significant health care reforms. There’s plenty needs doing.

The weekend saw the opening of the 24th National Congress of the Chinese Medical Association, in Beijing. The conference was addressed Saturday by Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who urged medical workers to improve the service they provide as part of the major reforms being undertaken in the country’s health system.

As well as calling for further investment (which country doesn’t?) Li also argued for a ‘performance-based’ incentive scheme that will encourage health professionals to improve their skills.

I’ll be starting a series of entries next week looking at some of the specific challenges China faces in improving its health care system, including environmental health, HIV/AIDS and infectious disease control efforts. Fixing a system that is supposed to serve a country of 1.34 billion people with vastly differing needs and incomes is no easy feat. But if China is to underpin its economic growth in the long term it will require a healthy and productive workforce.

Already the lack of an adequate social safety net is prompting an excessively high savings rate as Chinese worried about the cost of treatment ‘self-insure’ themselves against becoming sick. And as this piece yesterday in the New York Times notes, bigger hospitals are struggling to cope with an influx of visitors who shun smaller regional hospitals even for minor ailments in favour of bigger facilities in the cities. The problem is being compounded by the fact that many doctors, concerned about the significant financial investment they make in their education, don’t want to work in smaller hospitals where the pay is lower, which in turn means there is a smaller skill set from which doctors who do end up working in these small facilities can draw from.

The government is fully aware of the problems and last January passed a wide-reaching medical reform plan pledging 850 billion yuan ($123 billion) by 2011 to help provide universal medical coverage.

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I’ll be talking with a number of China health specialists including Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at The Nixon Center, Professor Elanah Uretsky at George Washington University and Chris Groves, director of the China Environmental Health Project, to help take a closer look at some of the proposals and key challenges facing Chinese policymakers, starting with an overview of the challenges and proposals Monday.