China recently announced a new five year road-map for reform of its healthcare sector. The National Planning Guideline for the Healthcare Service System (2015–2020)1 (the Guideline) is the first comprehensive five-year blueprint targeting keys areas for development by 2020.

Faced with the challenge of insufficient resources and poor quality of service in the sector, the reform of the healthcare sector is both a social and strategic priority for China. Despite the introduction of the initial healthcare reform plan a decade ago, the healthcare sector continues to be burdened by resource shortages and underdevelopment in rural areas.

The new reforms introduced by the Government targets three main areas: infrastructure development, reduction of costs and new investment. The wide ranging scope of these reforms will have a substantial impact on stakeholders and industry players including international medical device firms, drug makers, hospital operators and insurance companies. The Government’s recent emphasis on the opening up of the private sector has attracted global interest in the development of China’s healthcare sector. The continued reforms have bought new opportunities for investment by international players.

Below are the top ten policies in China’s new healthcare reform over the next five years.

China’s new healthcare reform at a glance:

Infrastructure development

  • Opening access for private investors to develop private hospitals.
  • Increasing the number of hospital beds across all medical institutions to alleviate burden on public hospitals.
  • Standardising training for medical professionals and improving allocation of resources.
  • Continued development of medical facilities at grassroot level and in rural areas.
  • Encouraging development of private senior care facilities and home care services.

Reducing costs and broader insurance coverage

  • Reducing patients’ out-of-pocket expenses through restrained use of medical devices, and if medical devices are required to be used, using locally manufactured devices.
  • Developing comprehensive medical insurance with better coverage.
  • Expanding the scope of practitioners’ insurance and establishing a dispute resolution mechanism.

New areas of investment

  • Establishing traditional Chinese medicine hospitals at the county and municipal level.
  • Investing in technology for online healthcare products and information sharing on cloud systems.

Infrastructure development

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01 | Opening access to develop private hospitals

The Government will introduce a number of measures to encourage private investment in hospitals.

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To ensure uptake in hospital beds at private hospitals, the Government will introduce broader social medical insurance to cover patients’ expenditure so as to encourage utilisation of private facilities to manage the burden on the public hospital system.

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02 | Increasing the number of hospital beds across all medical institutions

The Guideline sets ambitious targets for the increase of the number of hospital beds by 2020. As shown below, the targets represent a 30 per cent increase in the number of hospital beds at public hospitals and almost a two-fold increase in private hospitals. Note that these target figures are for guidance purposes only and not mandatory for hospitals to comply with.

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However, this target will not result in an unbridled increase of resources. The Guideline acknowledges that the rapid and uncontrolled expansion of public hospitals in recent years has resulted in the creation of oversized public hospitals, some currently with over 10,000 hospital beds.

This has jeopardised the development of grass-root medical institutions, another priority in the healthcare reform plan. The Government has signalled that measures will be introduced to curb this rapid expansion and in some cases, arrange for the spin-off of certain functions to reduce the size of public hospitals.

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03 | Standardising training and re-allocation of resources

Training

The Guideline provides that by 2020, a training system will be established to improve the quality of training for medical professionals and also include a target to increase the number of nursing and support staff.

Professional medical training will be standardised at various levels including college training, postgraduation education (at degree level), and continuing medical education (for professionals without academic degrees).

Multi-institution practice

Following earlier reforms introduced in 20144, the Guideline reiterates the importance of multiinstitution practice by practitioners. Medical professionals currently working at public hospitals will have added flexibility to practice at non-public hospitals. This will help enrich the pool of medical talent at non-public hospitals.

Geographic reach

Encouragement of medical professionals to provide their services in high demand areas such as western China and at grass-root hospitals.

New disciplines

The training program will focus on training specialists in the fields of paediatrics and psychiatry which are in high demand.

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04 | Improving quality at grass-root level

The Guideline provides that by 2020, there will be (i) one clinic and one medical service centre for each community with a population over 30,000 and (ii) 1.2 hospital beds made available for every 1,000 residents within a community. Grass-root hospitals will focus primarily on nursing and rehabilitation. The aim is to achieve satisfaction of the national standard for 95 per cent of all hospitals, clinics and medical centres at grass-root level.

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05 | Institutional cooperation for senior care

To meet the increasing demands of an expanding ageing population, the Government calls for the cooperation of medical service and senior care institutions. In particular, medical service institutions are encouraged to allocate beds for senior care. In turn, senior care institutions will be allowed to provide limited medical care where conditions permit.

The Government in particular encourages senior care services to be provided at the local community level and home care services to be made available to alleviate the burden on the hospital system.

Reducing medical costs and better protection for patients

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06 | Restricted use of medical devices

To reduce patients’ out-of-pocket expenses, the Government seeks to tighten the procurement of medical devices at public hospitals. Excessive use of medical devices which exceed patients’ needs is to be discouraged. Under circumstances where medical devices are deemed necessary, there will be a preference for the use of locally manufactured medical devices.

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07 | More comprehensive healthcare insurance

The Guideline calls for broader coverage under the state medical insurance and more comprehensive products such as critical illness insurance. The more affluent population will be encouraged to take out commercial health insurance. Reforms will also be made to the payment mechanisms to cover a wider range of medical costs charged by various medical institutions.

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08 | Expansion of practitioners’ insurance and dispute resolution

Due to the ongoing shortage of doctors and poor compensation of medical professionals, tensions have been growing between medical practitioners and patients in recent years. The Government has identified the need to develop a third party medical dispute resolution mechanism to address grievances and to mediate disputes arising between doctors and patients. In addition, there are plans to expand the application of liability and professional insurance for medical practitioners.

New areas for development

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09 | Traditional Chinese medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine is one of the key target areas for development. By 2020, one Chinese traditional medicine hospital is to be established in every county and municipality. In addition, there will be a target for traditional Chinese medicine hospitals to have 0.55 hospital beds for every 1000 residents in a community.

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10 | Embracing technology

Across the globe, technological advances have made the provision and management of healthcare more accessible. New technologies such as the IOT (internet of things), cloud computing, mobile internet and wearable gadgets have resulted in the proliferation of online healthcare products and applications.

China is also turning to technology in the advancement of its healthcare sector. By 2020, three digital national databases will be established containing health information, health profiles and medical records in electronic format. In addition, a national online platform will integrate information at the national, provincial, municipal and county levels.

The Government will continue to encourage the adoption of online healthcare products. Following the introduction of China’s telemedicine guidelines last year, it is expected that telemedicine will continue to thrive in the coming years.