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Shake-up of China’s health reforms in the offing after top-level meeting takes national pulse

A shake up of medical reforms is expected in the wake of a high-level national health conference over the weekend.

The conference on Friday and Saturday was attended not only by President Xi Jinping and his colleagues from the powerful Communist Party Politburo, but also by heads of the top legislature, court and procuratorate.

The meeting comes two decades after former president Jiang Zemin and the Politburo attended the first national health conference in Beijing. That gathering put health care firmly on the agenda, defining it as key to economic development and social stability.

The revival of the conference over the weekend after 20 years is a sign that medical reform is shifting direction.

Professor Liu Tingfang, from Tsinghua University’s Institute for Hospital Management, said the meeting stressed the importance of health rather than medical treatment or medical reform.

“It marks an important milestone and will lead to more achievements than the one 20 years ago,” Liu said.

China has made some big gains in health. Average life expectancy has risen from 35 in 1949 to over 76 last year while the infant mortality rate has dropped from 20 per cent in 1949 to 0.81 per cent last year.

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But the health system has been criticised as inaccessible and unaffordable for vast numbers of people.

At last week’s meeting, Xi called for full protection of the public’s health and underlined the need to make public health a central part of the country’s development strategy.

He said China faced health issues common to developing and developed countries and not addressing them risked undermining economic development and social stability.

Xi said health should be factored into government policy for the widest benefit, including mechanisms to prevent air, soil and water pollution, improve food safety and limit the impact of public safety accidents.

Eric Chong, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Asclepius Hospital Management, said he expected Xi would shift the focus of medical reform from treating illnesses to preventing them.

“By involving more government agencies, health is no longer [just] the business of the health authorities. Beijing has moved the watch for health from treating illness to preventing people from getting ill,” Chong said.

Xi also called for better and more accessible public medical services that ran the gamut from prevention, to treatment and rehabilitation.

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Liu said: “This means a shake-up of the health care industry and redistribution of medical resources.”

He said that despite government efforts to overhaul the medical system in general, most patients still headed to big hospitals in cities because of the lack of confidence in local facilities.

“This has become too much of a burden that might crush public health insurance and medical reforms. The leadership needs the hierarchical medical system to redistribute medical resources otherwise it will fail to realise changes to the medical system,” Liu said.