2017-12-22 09:54:25

A recent article shared on Chinese social media highlights just how jittery some Chinese are about their country’s health care system, with some wondering if the country can afford to pay its ballooning medical bills — though health authorities in southwestern China have since tried to assuage concerns.

The article, published in early November on Chinese MedScience-Tech, a public account on messaging app WeChat offering news and information about medical equipment, outlined recent cases that claim to show hospitals in Guizhou province penny-pinching when purchasing medical supplies. The story cites internal statements issued in October by two top public hospitals — neither was named — announcing their plans to stop using certain medical supplies and drugs, including antibiotics.

The hospitals also instructed doctors to use the most basic and low-cost medical implements. The purchase of other “unnecessary” supplies, such as staplers and sponges to stop bleeding, was suspended, and the hospitals stopped purchasing expensive medical supplies outright.

The news item has prompted discussion online, with some questioning whether such moves reflect financial strain on the province’s health insurance fund: a pool of money made up of contributions from citizens and companies that is used for reimbursing health care costs.

The order applies to a wide range of hospital departments, including orthopedics, ophthalmology, neurosurgery, and cardiology, the notice shows. Neither the notice nor its content could be independently verified by Sixth Tone.

“The health insurance fund ran out, and the administration’s solution is to cut medical supplies,” wrote one netizen commenting on a related article from Chinese MedScience-Tech. “This is a setback for our health care services … and it’s the people who will suffer,” the user added.

On Wednesday, local health authorities in Guizhou denied that the province’s health insurance was in the red, assuring Beijing Youth Daily that it was in a position of “good balance.” The authorities went on to say that the actions regarding medical supply purchase were intended to control rapidly rising medical expenses.

Guizhou health authorities also tried to allay fears that the cuts could lead to patients being refused treatment or deprived of essential drugs. Rather, the authorities said, the cuts were beneficial to patients because restrictions on certain prescriptions and the curbed use of some expensive medical equipment would reduce patients’ overall medical costs.

Some remain unconvinced, however. “Many [supplies] are not necessary if we are talking about the lowest standard of medical service,” commented one user of microblog platform Weibo. “With better supplies, the patients can be spared a lot of pain and make a swifter recovery.”

China’s economic growth is slowing, but medical costs are skyrocketing, fueled by a rapidly aging population and citizens’ demands for better health services. At $700 billion, China’s health care spending in 2016 represented 6.2 percent of the country’s GDP, up from 6 percent the previous year. By contrast, education spending was 4.2 percent of GDP in 2016, military spending 1.2 percent.

A 2016 valuation put China’s national health insurance fund at $193 billion.

Editor: Colum Murphy.

(Header image: An orthopedic surgeon prepares for an operation at a hospital in Zhengzhou, Henan province, July 8, 2015. VCG)