China can better its healthcare

(China Daily)
Updated: 2011-03-12 11:38
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Having grown up in the UK and lived for many years in Canada, I'm well aware of how healthcare systems can be a source of national pride and help define a country.

Both nations offer excellent healthcare that is free at the point of delivery to all citizens - so-called universal healthcare.

And while they are not perfect, the systems in those countries and in others, including Cuba, Australia and France, are the envy of many other nations.

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Here in China, where healthcare is better and more accessible than it has ever been, the nation's leaders are planning further reforms and will not rest until high-quality universal healthcare is available to all.

It's no exaggeration to say that China has performed miracles since 1949 in the improvement of its healthcare system and plans to take things further will make healthcare a major issue, both during the two sessions this month and in the years to come.

The challenge will be to build on the good work already completed and find a way to continue to advance in a way that matches the nation's recent fast economic development.

Imagine if China can improve its healthcare system during the next 60 years as radically as it upgraded it during the previous six decades. In 1950, one year after the founding of New China, the average lifespan of a Chinese person was around 35 years. Today, people can expect to live for almost 75 years.

But China has challenges unlike those faced by any other country. Its 1.3 billion people are spread out across a vast area but its doctors mainly prefer to practice in large cities.

The uneven allocation of doctors is one reason why hospitals are very good in major cities but less so in rural areas. One challenge will be to redistribute the trained professionals in a more rational manner.

Another challenge, in addition to ensuring high-quality services are available everywhere, will be to ensure people can afford them.

The introduction of the New Rural Cooperative Medical Care System in 2003 went a long way toward making sure they can.

The system offers health compensation for the rural poor. The policy is a major step toward making sure the country's poorest residents can afford medical care, but, as Premier Wen Jiabao said during his government work report on March 5, China wants to ensure more people are covered by medical insurance and a larger proportion of hospital bills are covered.

And there are other areas where there is room for improvement. Currently, many hospitals rely on income from the sale of drugs, which has led to over-prescribing. Regulation of pharmaceuticals and the introduction of other incentive systems are also in the cards.

In recent years, China has grabbed the bull by the horns and made great strides.

In January 2009, the government committed 850 billion yuan ($129 billion) to improve the healthcare system during the following three years.

Clearly, the will is there to make an impressive system even better.

Wen said more private and foreign investment will be encouraged in the years to come, which could lead to new innovations and efficiencies.

Another innovation I would love to see is the reintroduction of neighborhood clinics and neighborhood doctors.

In the old days, neighborhood doctors got a bad rap and little respect, largely because people saw them as less qualified than the doctors at big hospitals.

Consequently, people chose to consult doctors at big city hospitals for every little ailment and the neighborhood doctors disappeared.

I would like to see them return, this time as highly qualified and respected professionals that people are obliged to consult before they can get a referral to a specialist at a hospital.

These general practitioners would act as gatekeepers; treating those with easily curable conditions and referring others to experts. The change would free up valuable time and resources at the nation's hospitals and ensure a faster service for the seriously sick.

Further improving China's medical system will not be easy but it is a challenge facing all countries - how to satisfy infinite demand for medical care with finite resources.

China wants to make sure people share in its growing economic prosperity by improving the nation's social infrastructure and is planning improvements in its education, pension and healthcare systems as a result.

Advances in these areas will be the way in which China's success will be measured in the years to come and, after listening to Wen's government work report, I'm confident the country is equal to the challenge.