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On China’s Dramatic Health Care System Improvements – and Its Tortuous Road Ahead

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Young patients receive treatment at Chongqing Children's Hospital in Chongqing Municipality, China.
Young patients receive treatment at Chongqing Children's Hospital in Chongqing Municipality, China.
Photo credit: 
China Photos / Getty Images

In a new article published by the Milken Institute Review, APARC Deputy Director and Asia Health Policy Program Director Karen Eggleston offers an overview of the successes of China’s health reforms and the challenges ahead if the country is to increase the efficiency of health care delivery as it expands quality and usage.

Creating a high-quality universal health care system is an immense challenge anywhere, let alone in a country as large and diverse as China. But equal access to care will become ever more important as China converges on higher incomes, slower economic growth, population aging, and dependence on a skilled workforce to approach OECD living standards. With its health reforms over the past two decades, its growing technological prowess, and its application of innovative business models, China has made significant progress towards supporting higher-quality and more convenient health care for its 1.4 billion people. However, it is yet to deal with a host of challenges.

In a new article, Healing One-Fifth of Humanity, published in fall quarter 2019 of the Milken Institute Review, APARC Deputy Director and Asia Health Policy Program Director Karen Eggleston offers a progress report on China’s efforts to provide decent health care to all of its citizens, detailing how the reforms are working and what is left to do.

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A Tale of Two Chinas

One complex challenge China faces is addressing the gap in living standards between its rising middle class and its poorest citizens. Eggleston’s research shows stark gaps between urban and rural China in multiple measures, including life expectancy (almost 10 years differences as of 2013), infant mortality, and under-age-5 mortality. Health outcomes differ along other dimensions, too — between urban regions with higher and lower per capita income and among individuals with more or fewer years of schooling.

There are also striking inequalities in the burden of chronic disease and in health care and risk protection. For example, diabetes is associated with greater excess mortality in rural China, although prevalence is higher in urban areas. Moreover, although China has attained universal health coverage and put in place policies to enhance access while decreasing households’ out-of-pocket spending burden, the coverage of rural insurance is less generous than coverage for urbanites. Therefore, the prospect of catastrophic medical spending on delayed care remains substantially higher for rural than urban residents.

Additional challenges abound in multiple other areas, from addressing patient-provider tensions and trust, to changing provider incentives to promote value rather than volume, to deciding which new medical therapies qualify as basic. In broad terms, argues Eggleston, “China must build an infrastructure that increases the efficiency of health care delivery as it expands quality and usage.”

An important issue is the extent to which leveling public policy will ameliorate disparities, even as an array of social and economic forces push to widen disparities in health, health care use and burden of medical spending over a lifetime. The good news, says Eggleston, is that the process of catching up on one critical component of social justice, that is, universal health care, has begun, and there is evidence suggesting “that health investments can narrow the gaps in outcomes by compensating for health disadvantages.” There is also good reason to believe that policies that go beyond direct medical intervention – notably, investments in the quantity and quality of schooling – can have even greater influence on health and survival than access to medical care.

“The challenge now,” concludes Eggleston, “is to persist in an endeavor that requires flexibility, sensitivity to competing interests — and lots and lots of money.”