Despite the successes in public health, geographical inequality remains a challenge. Industry players say re-balancing resources and reducing the gap in medical standards between urban and rural areas will be one of the government's priorities over the next five years. Wei Lynn Tang has more.
This is a public hospital in China's southwest, one of the country's most under-developed regions.
Medical staff here say, in recent years, they've noticed more people from poor areas have medical insurance. And while their capacity to treat the critically ill has improved, challenges remain.
MA SIYAN Deputy Director, Internal Medicine Department, Zhaojue County People's Hospital "When it comes to cancer, our hospital does not have proper diagnosis and treatment capabilities. We transfer any suspected cases to city or provincial-level hospitals. For example, we can only do primary screening such as blood test and CT scans, but not a biopsy."
WEI LYNN TANG Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province "Official statistics show there are over four registered doctors for every thousand people in Beijing. But in the western Sichuan Province where I am now, there are just roughly two doctors per the same amount of people. For a country that's so vast, unequal distribution and accessibility to quality medical resources remains a problem and even more so when it comes to cancer, one of the leading causes of death in China."
Gu Jin's been a surgical oncologist for 40 years. He says, when it comes to cancer treatment, big Chinese cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai are comparable to international standards.
GU JIN Dean, Peking University Shougang Hospital "But when you look at the benchmark five-year cancer survival rate, we are over 20 percent lower than the United States. The disparity lies in county-level hospitals. These hospitals cover and service 900 million people, essentially over 70 percent of the country's population. So, improving the level of diagnosis and treatment at this grassroots level is key."
He says doctors at the grassroots level still lack of a basic understanding of treatment concepts.
GU JIN Dean, Peking University Shougang Hospital "We found that rectal cancer in China is usually that of 'low rectal cancer'. Based on guidelines, a pre-operative chemo-radiotherapy should be applied. But some hospitals don't even have this radiology or radio-therapy department, so doctors will send you for surgery instead. Hence, there's a contradiction in standards."
But to personally train each doctor can be difficult.
That's why Gu Jin wants to standardize cancer diagnosis and treatment via an information management system.
This kind of sharing platform – specifically for colorectal cancer – has already been implemented at Peking University Shougang Hospital.
GU JIN Dean, Peking University Shougang Hospital "By inputting information into the system, it will help you analyze what drugs can be used at different stages of tumour cancer. This way, there won't be instances of under or over-treatment. We are preparing to head to county-level hospitals next to train them to use the system."
Ultimately, Gu Jin says early screening is key to narrowing the gap of cancer incidence rates across regions.
GU JIN Dean, Peking University Shougang Hospital "Our country's medical insurance only covers the middle stage where the patient has already been diagnosed and needs treatment. But we are lacking of early screening. Another huge problem is that of late-stage cancer patients. General and/or cancer hospitals don't take these patients because they've no more treatment value. I suggest commercial insurance to focus on both early screening and hospice care."
And alas, one thing Gu Jin believes China can learn from the West is in the area of continued education where city and/or village doctors continue accumulating credits and update their knowledge on the industry's latest developments. WLT, CGTN, reporting from Beijing and Sichuan Province.