Public health in the People's Republic of China
Since the founding of the People's Republic, the goal of health programs has been to provide care to every member of the population and to make maximum use of limited health-care personnel, equipment, and financial resources. The emphasis has been on preventive rather than curative medicine on the premise that preventive medicine is "active" while curative medicine is "passive." The health-care system has dramatically improved the health of the people, as reflected by the remarkable increase in average life expectancy from about thirty-two years in 1950 to sixty-nine years in 1985.
After 1949 the Ministry of Public Health was responsible for all health-care activities and established and supervised all facets of health policy. Along with a system of national, provincial-level, and local facilities, the ministry regulated a network of industrial and state enterprise hospitals and other facilities covering the health needs of workers of those enterprises. In 1981 this additional network provided approximately 25 percent of the country's total health services. Health care was provided in both rural and urban areas through a three-tiered system. In rural areas the first tier was made up of barefoot doctors working out of village medical centers. They provided preventive and primary-care services, with an average of two doctors per 1,000 people. At the next level were the township health centers, which functioned primarily as out-patient clinics for about 10,000 to 30,000 people each. These centers had about ten to thirty beds each, and the most qualified members of the staff were assistant doctors. The two lower-level tiers made up the "rural collective health system" that provided most of the country's medical care. Only the most seriously ill patients were referred to the third and final tier, the county hospitals, which served 200,000 to 600,000 people each and were staffed by senior doctors who held degrees from 5-year medical schools. Health care in urban areas was provided by paramedical personnel assigned to factories and neighborhood health stations. If more professional care was necessary the patient was sent to a district hospital, and the most serious cases were handled by municipal hospitals. To ensure a higher level of care, a number of state enterprises and government agencies sent their employees directly to district or municipal hospitals, circumventing the paramedical, or barefoot doctor, stage.
An emphasis on public health and preventive treatment characterized health policy from the beginning of the 1950s. At that time the party began to mobilize the population to engage in mass "patriotic health campaigns" aimed at improving the low level of environmental sanitation and hygiene and attacking certain diseases. One of the best examples of this approach was the mass assaults on the "four pests"--rats, sparrows, flies, and mosquitoes--and on schistosoma-carrying snails. Particular efforts were devoted in the health campaigns to improving water quality through such measures as deep-well construction and human-waste treatment. Only in the larger cities had human waste been centrally disposed. In the countryside, where "night soil" has always been collected and applied to the fields as fertilizer, it was a major source of disease. Since the 1950s, rudimentary treatments such as storage in pits, composting, and mixture with chemicals have been implemented.
As a result of preventive efforts, such epidemic diseases as cholera, plague, typhoid, and scarlet fever have almost been eradicated. The mass mobilization approach proved particularly successful in the fight against syphilis, which was reportedly eliminated by the 1960s. The incidence of other infectious and parasitic diseases was reduced and controlled. Relaxation of certain sanitation and antiepidemic programs since the 1960s, however, may have resulted in some increased incidence of disease. In the early 1980s, continuing deficiencies in human-waste treatment were indicated by the persistence of such diseases as hookworm and schistosomiasis. Tuberculosis, a major health hazard in 1949, remained a problem to some extent in the 1980s, as did hepatitis, malaria, and dysentery. In the late 1980s, the need for health education and improved sanitation was still apparent, but it was more difficult to carry out the health-care campaigns because of the breakdown of the brigade system. By the mid-1980s, China recognized the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) virus as a serious health threat but remained relatively unaffected by the deadly disease. As of mid-1987 there was confirmation of only two deaths of Chinese citizens from AIDS, and monitoring of foreigners had begun. Following a 1987 regional World Health Organization meeting, the Chinese government announced it would join the global fight against AIDS, which would involve quarantine inspection of people entering China from abroad, medical supervision of people vulnerable to AIDS, and establishment of AIDS laboratories in coastal cities. Additionally, it was announced that China was experimenting with the use of traditional medicine to treat AIDS.
In the mid-1980s the leading causes of death in China were similar to those in the industrialized world: cancer, cerebrovascular disease, and heart disease. Some of the more prevalent forms of fatal cancers included cancer of the stomach, esophagus, liver, lung, and colon-rectum. The frequency of these diseases was greater for men than for women, and lung cancer mortality was much greater in higher income areas. The degree of risk for the different kinds of cancers varied widely by region. For example, nasopharyngeal cancer was found primarily in south China, while the incidence of esophageal cancer was higher in the north.
To address concerns over health, the Chinese greatly increased the number and quality of health-care personnel, although in 1986 serious shortages still existed. In 1949 only 33,000 nurses and 363,000 physicians were practicing; by 1985 the numbers had risen dramatically to 637,000 nurses and 1.4 million physicians. Some 436,000 physicians' assistants were trained in Western medicine and had 2 years of medical education after junior high school. Official Chinese statistics also reported that the number of paramedics increased from about 485,400 in 1975 to more than 853,400 in 1982. The number of students in medical and pharmaceutical colleges in China rose from about 100,000 in 1975 to approximately 160,000 in 1982.
Efforts were made to improve and expand medical facilities. The number of hospital beds increased from 1.7 million in 1976 to 2.2 million in 1984, or to 2 beds per 1,000 compared with 4.5 beds per 1,000 in 1981 in the United States. The number of hospitals increased from 63,000 in 1976 to 67,000 in 1984, and the number of specialized hospitals and scientific research institutions doubled during the same period.
The availability and quality of health care varied widely from city to countryside. According to 1982 census data, in rural areas the crude death rate was 1.6 per 1,000 higher than in urban areas, and life expectancy was about 4 years lower. The number of senior physicians per 1,000 population was about 10 times greater in urban areas than in rural ones; state expenditure on medical care was more than -Y26 per capita in urban areas and less than -Y3 per capita in rural areas. There were also about twice as many hospital beds in urban areas as in rural areas. These are aggregate figures, however, and certain rural areas had much better medical care and nutritional levels than others.
In 1987 economic reforms were causing a fundamental transformation of the rural health-care system. The decollectivization of agriculture resulted in a decreased desire on the part of the rural populations to support the collective welfare system, of which health care was a part. In 1984 surveys showed that only 40 to 45 percent of the rural population was covered by an organized cooperative medical system, as compared with 80 to 90 percent in 1979.
This shift entailed a number of important consequences for rural health care. The lack of financial resources for the cooperatives resulted in a decrease in the number of barefoot doctors, which meant that health education and primary and home care suffered and that in some villages sanitation and water supplies were checked less frequently. Also, the failure of the cooperative health-care system limited the funds available for continuing education for barefoot doctors, thereby hindering their ability to provide adequate preventive and curative services. The costs of medical treatment increased, deterring some patients from obtaining necessary medical attention. If the patients could not pay for services received, then the financial responsibility fell on the hospitals and commune health centers, in some cases creating large debts.
Consequently, in the post-Mao era of modernization, the rural areas were forced to adapt to a changing health-care environment. Many barefoot doctors went into private practice, operating on a fee-for-service basis and charging for medication. But soon farmers demanded better medical services as their incomes increased, bypassing the barefoot doctors and going straight to the commune health centers or county hospitals. A number of barefoot doctors left the medical profession after discovering that they could earn a better living from farming, and their services were not replaced. The leaders of brigades, through which local health care was administered, also found farming to be more lucrative than their salaried positions, and many of them left their jobs. Many of the cooperative medical programs collapsed. Farmers in some brigades established voluntary health-insurance programs but had difficulty organizing and administering them.
Although the practice of traditional Chinese medicine was strongly promoted by the Chinese leadership and remained a major component of health care, Western medicine was gaining increasing acceptance in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, the number of physicians and pharmacists trained in Western medicine reportedly increased by 225,000 from 1976 to 1981, and the number of physicians' assistants trained in Western medicine increased by about 50,000. In 1981 there were reportedly 516,000 senior physicians trained in Western medicine and 290,000 senior physicians trained in traditional Chinese medicine. The goal of China's medical professionals is to synthesize the best elements of traditional and Western approaches.
In practice, however, this combination has not always worked smoothly. In many respects, physicians trained in traditional medicine and those trained in Western medicine constitute separate groups with different interests. For instance, physicians trained in Western medicine have been somewhat reluctant to accept "unscientific" traditional practices, and traditional practitioners have sought to preserve authority in their own sphere. Although Chinese medical schools that provided training in Western medicine also provided some instruction in traditional medicine, relatively few physicians were regarded as competent in both areas in the mid- 1980s.
The extent to which traditional and Western treatment methods were combined and integrated in the major hospitals varied greatly. Some hospitals and medical schools of purely traditional medicine were established. In most urban hospitals, the pattern seemed to be to establish separate departments for traditional and Western treatment. In the county hospitals, however, traditional medicine received greater emphasis.
Traditional medicine depends on herbal treatments, acupuncture, acupressure, moxibustion (the burning of herbs over acupuncture points), and "cupping" of skin with heated bamboo. Such approaches are believed to be most effective in treating minor and chronic diseases, in part because of milder side effects. Traditional treatments may be used for more serious conditions as well, particularly for such acute abdominal conditions as appendicitis, pancreatitis, and gallstones; sometimes traditional treatments are used in combination with Western treatments. A traditional method of orthopedic treatment, involving less immobilization than Western methods, continued to be widely used in the 1980s.
Although health care in China developed in very positive ways by the mid-1980s, it exacerbated the problem of overpopulation. In 1987 China was faced with a population four times that of the United States and over three times that of the Soviet Union. Efforts to distribute the population over a larger portion of the country had failed: only the minority nationalities seemed able to thrive in the mountainous or desert-covered frontiers. Birth control programs implemented in the 1970s succeeded in reducing the birth rate, but estimates in the mid-1980s projected that China's population will surpass the 1.2 billion mark by the turn of the century, putting still greater pressure on the land and resources of the nation.