'World News' Gets Answers on China: Health Care

Only 1 percent of doctors have PhDs; Not enough hospitals for huge population.

ByABC News
November 18, 2010, 12:18 PM

Nov. 18, 2010— -- China has stunned the world with its rapid economic growth in recent years, showcased through the glittering skyline of Shanghai and the global events like the 2008 Olympics. But while the country has amassed tremendous wealth, China still trails the developed world in its ability to provide even basic health care for its people.

With its massive 1.3 billion population, China's health care expenditures are miniscule compared to Western nations.

China spent less than 5 percent of its GDP on health care in 2005, compared to roughly 16 percent spent in the United States and 10 percent in Canada, according to the World Health Organization.

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"The amount of government spending on health care is really low. It's less than $10 per person, per year," said Drew Thompson, director of China studies and Starr senior fellow at the Nixon Center.

Per person expenditures in the U.S. have topped $6,000 in recent years.

Despite China's Communist government, health care remains largely the responsibility of individuals. Out-of-pocket expenses are extremely high in comparison to average earnings. A single hospital visit nearly matches China's annual income per capita.

Health insurance is not mandated, though the government does have health insurance programs that provide coverage to some 90 percent of the population. The programs include an employer-based system, a program for urban residents, and another program covering the rural population. For the most part, the programs do not cover the basic care.

"At the moment, most programs in the provinces across China provide primarily in-patient care service," said Dr. Gordon Liu, professor of economics at Peking University. "Basically, the goal is to protect you from having catastrophic problems."

As a result, much of the Chinese population doesn't even receive basic medical care.

"They're still paying largely out of pocket, which causes them to delay going to the doctor," Thompson said. "People don't go to the hospital until they're really sick. There's no preventative services."

But even with the financial disincentive, there still is a shortage of care.

"Usually, Chinese people would have to wait many days to get registered, or you have to know someone ... to get registered before you are diagnosed and treated," said Liu. "We have a supply shortage ... meaning beds, the doctors, good hospital facilities are not enough to meet the demand by people."