Low-cost hospitals crucial for reform

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2006, 12:00am

Health ministry hopes they will serve as a model in reducing hefty medical bills

The Ministry of Health hopes an experiment with low-cost hospitals will serve as a model in the government's efforts to restructure the health-care system and curb malpractices that result in exorbitant medical bills.

Health Minister Gao Qiang announced last month that the mainland would try to provide cheap health care to low-income groups through designating low-cost hospitals or low-cost wards.

Local governments have been asked to assign hospitals or wards for the experiment, although mainland media reports have said some needy people, such as migrant workers, will still be excluded from the services.

Some media reports said patients would still have to pay big medical bills.

Ministry spokesman Mao Qunan said yesterday the introduction of low-cost hospitals was not an ad hoc measure to assuage public grievances, but an experiment to restructure the financing and pricing of hospitals for future reforms.

For example, it was common practice for hospitals to prescribe expensive and unnecessary medicine because the law allowed them to mark up medicine prices by 20 per cent to supplement their income.

Mr Mao said the low-cost hospitals were subsidised by the government and would therefore not need to overcharge patients.

Since the government admitted late last year that the health-care system desperately needed reform, it has tried to put together a reform package, including the setting up of low-cost hospitals and shifting of basic health-care provision to community clinics.

'Currently, 95 per cent of cities above the county level and 86 per cent of the districts in cities, as well as some counties have already introduced urban community health-care services,' Mr Mao said.

There were 3,400 community health-care centres and 12,000 community health-care providers, while 108 model districts had been set up, he said.

The ministry is hoping the public will go to these more affordable clinics for minor ailments and basic services instead of crowding major hospitals.

However, Mr Mao admitted the experiment faced many problems, such as a shortage of qualified doctors and the lack of public confidence in the facilities.

'We need 100,000 [trained full-time doctors for these community clinics], but only several thousand have had formal training,' he said 'It is a process that takes time.'

He said many areas had flouted regulations which required them to include the clinics in their medical insurance networks.

The community health-care network only covers urban areas now. The government hopes to fill the gap in health-care provision in the countryside with rural medical insurance co-operatives introduced a few years ago.