'World News' Gets Answers on China: Health Care

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Part of the reason for the shortage of well-trained doctors is that there's little financial incentive for China's best and brightest to go into the field. While much of China's economy has become market-based in recent years, medicine has not made the same transition and doctors' salaries are tightly controlled by the state.

"Doctors in China are way underpaid for medical services they provide," Liu said.

Doctors Make Money Off Prescriptions

In fact, medical school graduates often end up working for drug companies instead of becoming physicians, and even medical doctors boost their pay through pharmaceuticals. Drugs are sold through doctors in hospitals instead of pharmacies, so physicians have a financial incentive to overprescribe drugs.

"Out of every $100 [spent on medicine] in the U.S., people spend about $10 to $12 on drugs," Liu said. "In China, for every $100, we would usually spend $40 to $45."

The Chinese government is working to reform the health care system with a goal of providing basic care to all its people by the year 2020, but the ambitious goals also come with new health challenges.

As the country's population has urbanized and grown wealthier, health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease are occurring more frequently. The population also is aging, with a U.N. estimate suggesting that almost a quarter of the population will be 65 or older by 2050, far larger than the global average.

Just as in the U.S., health care reform is an urgent problem for China, but with a far different set of complications.

"I don't think there's a whole lot of lessons that we can learn from one another," said Thompson.

ABC's Sarah Amos contributed to this report.

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