China’s Evolving Healthcare Ecosystem: Challenges and Opportunities

Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

China’s national health reforms over the past two decades have brought the system closer to the modern, safe, reliable, and accessible health system that is commensurate with China’s dramatic economic growth, improvement in living standards, and high hopes for the next generation.

China’s national health reforms of 2009—continuing many reforms undertaken since SARS (2003)—consolidated a system of social health insurance covering the entire population for basic health services, contributing to a surge in healthcare utilization while reducing out-of-pocket costs to patients – which declined from 56% to 28% of total health expenditures between 2003 and 2017. An expanded basic public health service package, funded by per capita government budget allocations that include a higher central government subsidy for lower-income provinces, provides basic population health services to all Chinese. Now the governance structure consolidates the purchaser role for social health insurance schemes under the National Healthcare Security Administration, with most other health sector functions under the National Health Commission. China’s world-leading technological prowess in multiple fields spanning digital commerce to artificial intelligence—and accompanying innovative business models such as WeDoctor that have not yet been fully integrated into the health system—hold promise for supporting higher quality and more convenient healthcare for China’s 1.4 billion.

However, many challenges remain, from dealing with COVID-19 and its aftermath to other lingering challenges, from promoting healthy aging to the political economy of addressing patient-provider tensions, changing provider payment to promote “value” rather than volume, and deciding which new medical therapies qualify as “basic” for the basic medical insurance schemes. To make China’s investments in universal health coverage and the accompanying rapid medical spending growth sustainable in the longer run, policies need to help the most vulnerable avoid illness-induced poverty, increase health system efficiency, strengthen primary care, and reform provider payment systems.