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A good first step in China's healthcare reform
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If it works, it should make everyone feel a little better about healthcare - and make healthcare a little more accessible to more people. Patients will no longer have to shell out the 7 to 15 percent extra fees that State-owned hospitals charge on medicines. The Health Ministry's announcement last week is a welcome first step in China's long-delayed healthcare reform.

The new policy, to be adopted on trial basis, is intended to stop hospitals from relying too much on income from medicines. It is estimated that income from the sale of medicines makes up 50 percent of a hospital's revenue on an average.

But the catch is that a doctor's income too is closely tied to the hospital's earnings from medicine sales. No wonder it is common for doctors to prescribe expensive drugs while cheaper drugs can work just as well or possibly even better.

Part of the deficit caused by reduced income from drug sales will be made up by increased charges on patients for the service that doctors provide. But such expenses will be covered by basic medical insurance. That means those who have such insurance will have cheaper medical bills for seeing their doctors.

What is supposed to make the difference is the move's intention to get rid of the unhealthy tendency of doctors prescribing expensive drugs for their own or their hospital's profits rather than for the rehabilitation of patients.

The government's good intention could be just wishful thinking if no specific measures were taken to break the nexus between representatives of medicine manufacturers and doctors or between hospitals and manufacturers.

It is an open secret that some doctors get kickbacks from drug manufacturers for prescribing their drugs.

This move will undoubtedly dampen the enthusiasm hospitals have to urge their doctors to prescribe expensive drugs.

It is still too early to say how much the new policy will improve the service doctors provide to their patients and reduce the cost of healthcare since it will only be practiced in some hospitals on a trial basis for three years.

Cutting down expensive healthcare bills and improving the quality of service require more investigations into the problem areas of the healthcare system.

The detailed plan for this reform is expected to be made public soon. Many are looking forward to specific measures dealing with healthcare problems. This comes in the backdrop of mounting complaints from the public about the difficulty in and high cost of seeking healthcare service.

Hopefully, this is just a start that will be followed up by more practical moves to make it easier and cheaper for more people to get quality healthcare service.

(China Daily January 12, 2009)

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