Health system reform in rural China: voices of healthworkers and service-users

Soc Sci Med. 2014 Sep;117:134-41. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.07.040. Epub 2014 Jul 17.


Like many other countries China is undergoing major health system reforms, with the aim of providing universal health coverage, and addressing problems of low efficiency and inequity. The first phase of the reforms has focused on strengthening primary care and improving health insurance coverage and benefits. The aim of the study was to explore the impacts of these reforms on healthworkers and service-users at township level, which has been the major target of the first phase of the reforms. From January to March 2013 we interviewed eight health officials, 80 township healthworkers and 80 service-users in eight counties in Zhejiang and Yunnan provinces, representing rich and poor provinces respectively. Thematic analysis identified key themes around the impacts of the health reforms. We found that some elements of the reforms may actually be undermining primary care. While the new health insurance system was popular among service-users, it was criticised for contributing to fast-growing medical costs, and for an imbalance of benefits between outpatient and inpatient services. Salary reform has guaranteed healthworkers' income, but greatly reduced their incentives. The essential drug list removed perverse incentives to overprescribe, but led to falls in income for healthworkers, and loss of autonomy for doctors. Serious problems with drug procurement also emerged. The unintended consequences have included a brain drain of experienced healthworkers from township hospitals, and patients have flowed to county hospitals at greater cost. In conclusion, in the short term resources must be found to ensure rural healthworkers feel appropriately remunerated and have more clinical autonomy, measures for containment of the medical costs must be taken, and drug procurement must show increased transparency and accountability. More importantly the study shows that all countries undergoing health reforms should elicit the views of stakeholders, including service-users, to avoid and address unintended consequences.

Keywords: China; Essential drugs; Health insurance; Health reforms; Primary care; Qualitative.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Attitude to Health
  • China
  • Delivery of Health Care / economics
  • Female
  • Health Care Reform*
  • Humans
  • Insurance, Health / economics
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Primary Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Rural Health Services* / economics
  • Rural Health Services* / statistics & numerical data