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Stanford University School of Medicine

A look at health care reform — in China

The struggles with health insurance reform here in the United States piqued my curiosity about what we could learn from other countries. I reached out to Karen Eggleston, PhD, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, who researches health care systems and health reform in Asia, especially China.

What is health insurance like in China?

The original system was linked to the centrally planned economy. Communes in rural areas supported the barefoot doctors and state-owned enterprises provided people with health care coverage in the urban areas. But when China converted to a market-based economy, this had to change. So long story short, they've put into place a new system of health coverage based on government subsidized insurance for rural and non-employed urban populations, as well as an employee-based medical insurance for the employed urban population. As I like to tell my U.S. colleagues, if you think providing coverage for 40 million uninsured people is a challenge, then think about covering over 800 million uninsured -- that's what China was dealing with.

Many Westerners would be surprised to know that Chinese have almost complete freedom when choosing their doctor or hospital.

How has this expanded coverage impacted health and survival?

There is a lot of evidence that the expanded health insurance improved access to care and helped protect households from high health care expenditures, but it's actually pretty difficult to pin down the effects on health and survival.

In a recent study in Health Affairs, we looked at the New Cooperative Medical Scheme that provides health insurance to rural areas. We used the fact that it was introduced over time in different counties to look at the effect it had later, correlating this data with cause-specific mortality data from China's CDC.  We didn't see a significant impact on mortality rate due to expanded medical coverage.

This was and wasn't surprising. It may take a long time for the results to manifest. But it's also quite well known in health economic research that health and survival are often shaped by non-medical factors like lifestyle.

What are some of the biggest health care challenges in China?

As China urbanizes hundreds of millions of people at a time, they are changing their diet and living a more sedentary lifestyle. As a result, they're now getting what are sometimes called the diseases of affluence, such as diabetes. Like many developing countries, China's health care system was setup to deal primarily with acute conditions and to control infectious diseases. Now, they need to sustainably finance and manage programs to prevent and care for people with chronic diseases.

A lot of China's care is also based in hospitals, so they need to strengthen primary care -- ironic for a country so famous for barefoot doctors. Physicians' career trajectories are better in urban hospitals and patients know that's where the best physicians are. But new policies are trying to lure patients and doctors to primary care.

What other factors are affecting health in China?

China has a rapidly aging population -- largely due to their triumph in extending lives by controlling infectious diseases and lifting millions out of poverty, and also related to low fertility. This demographic change reinforces the challenge of preventing and controlling chronic disease.

We also know that people with more education tend to have better health and survival than people with lower education. China's economic growth has brought a rapid increase in living standards but also a rise in inequality, in both rural and urban areas. One of the best ways to address this is to improve opportunities of education for the disadvantaged. This isn't typically thought of as a health policy, but actually studies have shown education can have long lasting effects on health and survival.

Previously: Two weeks in China: Lessons on innovating abroadBuilding the case for a national hepatitis B treatment program in China and Seeking solutions to childhood anemia in China
Photo courtesy of Karen Eggleston

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