China faces uphill battle to give better healthcare

Fri Apr 8, 2011 6:55am EDT
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By Tan Ee Lyn

HONG KONG (Reuters) - As a young Chinese doctor earning 4,000 yuan ($600) a month, Zhang Fei was faced with having to cough up 2,000 yuan for a bill that a patient left unpaid after Zhang removed a tumor from her womb.

Zhang managed to track down the patient after alerting her neighbors and only avoided having to settle the bill when the patient returned to the hospital to sign a promise to pay.

"I'm only a doctor, why do I have to pay for it? I was very, very depressed. I spent many, many days ringing her, trying to track her down and I had to get other villagers to knock on her door," Zhang told Reuters in an interview.

China is overhauling the biggest healthcare system in human history and has made significant changes since 2003: implementing a basic universal medical insurance system and heavily subsidizing a growing list of essential drugs.

In March, it pledged more money to bring more people under the insurance scheme, raise reimbursements and improve services to meet the needs of its 1.34 billion people who are increasingly troubled by costly, chronic, non-communicable illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

The government also slashed the maximum retail price for more than 1,200 types of antibiotics and circulatory system drugs to cap profits of foreign and domestic drug makers and ward off grumbling over high healthcare costs.

But missing are plans to deal with other entrenched problems in the healthcare system, such as the absence of good hospital management which can often result in health workers being pitted against patients, like the situation Zhang faced.

Zhang and her colleagues often need to confront patients to get payment, or risk forking out for unpaid bills out of their pockets.   Continued...