Friday, 7 March 2014

Dr Zhong Nanshan: what's wrong with China's health system and why we need to get doctors on board to fix it

by Michael Woodhead
Dr Zhong Nanshan is one of China's most well known and respected doctors. A respiratory physician and former head of the Chinese Medical Association, he is the 'hero' of the 2003 SARS infection outbreak, and his frank advice is respected by the government. At this week's meeting of the National People's Congress in Beijing, Dr Zhong gave a speech on the current problems with the Chinese healthcare system and the direction of health reforms.

"Today when I heard Premier Li Keqiang's announcement I was very excited, as his words provided a lot of inspiration on the difficult problems we are facing with medical reform. In recent years China's reforms of health insurance and the healthcare system have attracted worldwide attention. But from the public's point of view, there is still the problem of 'difficult to see a doctor, expensive to see a doctor'. Doctor-patient relations are still tense (as the China Hospital Association has recently made clear, hospital doctors and staff have often been the victims of violent  attacks) and hospital staff are not showing enthusiasm or initiative in their work.

For these three criteria, when it comes to health reforms there has been no breakthrough in the last five years, and in fact things have become worse in some areas. Where does the blame lie? The answer is in our major (tertiary level) hospitals.  In these institutions, doctors have not become heavily involved in medical reforms, and this problem is becoming more serious. Look at land reform: this was about the relationship between farmers and landlords, and it was based on respecting the position of the farmer, allowing them to make a living. Likewise with education reform - this was about teacher-student relations and when teachers and schools got better pay, resources and conditions, teachers got more respect.

Why are doctors not enthusiastic for health reform?

Similarly, medical reform will depend on the involvement of doctors. America's medical reforms were about respecting medical opinion and allowing the doctor's clinical judgement to drive the direction of the medical system. I remember in 2012 when Li Keqiang was deputy premier and I saw him at a meeting, and I told him that the most important point I wanted to make was that doctors must be the driving force behind medical reform. However, five years have gone by and it seems that under the present reform system medical staff can see no way in which they can change things for the better. On the contrary it seems that many of the reform programs have an adverse affect on the working conditions for doctors. For doctors it is as if society 'discriminates against them'. And under such conditions, where is the enthusiasm for medical reform going to come from?

As any changes are going to affect doctors' interests, let us first analyse the current situation in regard to doctors' incomes. It is a widely held belief among the public and some government departments that doctors' earn a large amount of extra and unjustified income through what we could call unofficial 'grey channels', and this is seen as outrageous, unethical behaviour. Therefore, before the conference I examined the accounts of the Guangzhou tertiary hospitals. These showed that in 2012 the average official annual salary of a doctor was 41,077 yuan, but the actual annual income for a doctor with all allowances, bonuses and subsidies was 176,320 yuan. For 2013, the average official salary for a doctor was 46023 yuan, but their actual annnual income was more than 190,000 yuan.

Of course this level of income is high compared to the average worker or government official, but it is low compared to the incomes of doctors in other countries. It may therefore be said that this level of income for doctors is reasonable, especially when this extra income comes from government policies as they are applied in hospitals. Here is a typical example of how state-owned enterprises operate to improve performance: hospitals want to increase their income so they increase the number of beds to accept more patients and they increase the number of procedures and tests. On my ward rounds I see many patients who are having unnecessary tests and procedures. One of the main reasons for this is that doctor's income is linked to irrational medical practices - this is a major contradiction within our health system.

Reward doctors for their skills, not for how much they prescribe

My second major point is that a doctor's economic labour value is not reflected in medical fees in China, which are far too low. A doctor's economic value should be related to their ability to diagnose and treat and their ability to give individual attention to a patient based on their skill and knowledge. Unfortunately, in China this is not the case. In the rest of the world a doctor's income depends on their clinical skills, whereas in China a doctor's income is linked to how many drugs they prescribe and how many tests and treatments they order. It is not surprising then, that in China doctors' credibility is called into question. But rather than blame this on a doctor's ethical flaws, we should recognise that this is due to hospital policies that prioritise income and profit and skew the doctor's working patterns.

Too many patients, not enough time

My third point is related to the tense situation in doctor-patient relations. I believe this is 80% due to the difficulty that patients have in accessing a doctor. Owing to the way hospitals operate, doctors are given quotas of numbers of patients to be seen each day. If they do not meet the targets for numbers of patients treated, they miss out on their financial bonus. In other words, the more patients they see, the better. Thinks about this: in half a day a single doctor must see fifty or sixty patients. What does this say about patient access to a doctor and the doctor's 'space' to practice good medicine? The reality for patients is "wait for three hours to see a doctor for three minutes". That just isn't enough time for a proper consultation, and as the consultation time shrinks, the strained relations between doctors and patients increase.

These days in a bid to exploit 'resources' to the full, hospitals are always seeking to increase their bed numbers and they open 'branch hospitals' to increase capacity. While in theory this increases the opportunities for the population to get treatment, the reality is that this increases the hospital income. And the other aspect is that doctors are 'running to exhaustion' trying to treat ever higher numbers of patients. This is not a sustainable model for providing for a community's medical needs.

So we have doctors who see that the government health system cannot provide them with a basic income in proportion to their work and skills. They thus see no benefit from medical reforms so far: they have a negative view, show little enthusiasm and no initiative towards medical reforms. Therefore, as the public should be the target for healthcare reforms, I could set the theme of my speech today as: "Discard doctors as driver of health reform: don't let the medics change the medical reform."

Principles: the need to put more value on health

The way to solve these problems is to change our principles. Today I especially appreciated hearing Premier Li Keqiang's remarks that: "For existing problems the government should look within itself for the causes." I think for health reform we need to look within the health system for the causes of the problems.

Firstly, within both government and society we need to develop a respect for life, to treasure life and health. And if we are to attach importance to preserving life and health we must invest in the health system. From 2005 to 2012 our country made great efforts in health and increased funding for health from 3% to 5% of GDP. However, this is still a lower level of health funding compared to developed countries - in fact we spend less on health by GDP than Afghanistan does. Developed countries spend between 8% to 15% of GDP on health, and we need to aim for that.

But we can't just think of health in economic terms. Health reform must start by putting health and life as a first priority for society. At present in Chinese hospitals the economic value of the healthcare staff is very low compared to other countries. The incomes  of public hospital medical staff are very low and should be higher. Other countries have managed to create good public hospitals systems, why can't we?

Use public insurance funds to improve health services

Of course China has a huge population, and we can't expect our public hospitals to immediately become public welfare providers for everyone. We have to look to the health insurance system for the potential to do that. Since 2011, the national health insurance scheme has been meant to guarantee access to medical treatment and medicines. However the system is fractured and un-coordinated, and those benefits have not been realised. Since 2009, the rural medical insurance scheme has shown good results but these have not been seen with urban insurance schemes, which still have major problems.

Health departments lack the management skills to oversee these schemes, and although the public have paid a lot into these public insurance schemes, the benefits have not been taken out. We should look to these accumulated health funds as resources to fund health reforms. We need to focus on the supply side, not just on patient input and demand. If doctors show good performance they should be rewarded for providing more services. Hospitals should be able to use this insurance funding as a lever to deliver more and better services - but currently the health insurance funds are out of their control and managed by the social welfare department.

The social welfare department does not accept responsibility for health reform and this is a major obstacle to reform of public hospitals and the way that funding is raised, dispersed and linked to performance of the public hospital system. In 2010 there was something like a 7 billion yuan surplus in health insurance contributions - why is this surplus not being used to boost the public hospital provision of services? The health department does not have funding for hospitals - this system needs to be changed - as in 70% of foreign countries where health departments manage public hospitals.

Hospitals should be centres of excellence

Finally we need to improve the education and culture of healthcare staff. We need to have a system based on merit. In most countries, large hospitals are centres for medical expertise and do not deal so much with common, everyday problems. These are dealt with by family doctors or community clinics. Last year the government's health working group made the creation of community clinics and hospitals a priority. I strongly approve of this. Through investment the government should improve the skills and the remuneration and conditions for community clinics and local hospitals. I think the technical and management skills of small hospitals and clinics should be nurtured and overseen by tertiary hospitals, which take responsibility for community clinics. In this way the standard of local clinics could be increased to allow them to cover the same scope of basic care as tertiary hospitals within 3-5 years.

In summary, across the world, the medical profession is regarded with respect in most countries, but China is the exception. The economic value of medical personnel has been degraded, and until this is restored they will not be at the front of driving health reform. The medical staff of Guangzhou University Hospital have great underlying enthusiasm for health reform - it just needs to be shown that reforms will bring them benefits and respect, for them to be positive and actively support them, I believe. I think that in this respect Guangdong doctors will be at the forefront of reforms. We will work together to fulfill what Li Keqiang described as "a solution with Chinese characteristics to the difficult problem of health reform."

Editor's note: This is my translation of Dr Zhong Nanshan's speech that was made at the NPC meeting in Beijing on 5th March, 2014 and published in the People's Daily. It is not a perfect translation, but I have covered the main points as best I can. If you see any errors I will be happy to correct them. The original can be seen in Chinese here.

1 comment:

  1. Hi
    We would like to use the image of Dr Zhong Nanshan and wonder if you would be able to give us access to it? Many thanks

    Deepthi (

    Marketing Manager the University of Edinburgh


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