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Quality Healthcare Continues Its Long March into the Countryside

The authorities are planning to institutionalize the so-called "long march of healthcare into the countryside" as they work to bring quality medical services to the country's underprivileged rural population.

To support the spread of healthcare to rural areas, the ministries of Health and Finance initiated a "patching scheme" in 2005, under which some 10,000 urban health professionals are to be dispatched to rural medical institutions nationwide by the end of next year to give local people better access to healthcare.

"The assistance scheme envisions a long-term reallocation of the nation's healthcare resources, which have long been biased towards urban areas, to improve rural medical care and provide better staff at rural hospitals," Minister of Health Gao Qiang said yesterday in Beijing during a teleconference to discuss rural medical care policy.

"We are working on a plan to make the program a long-term mechanism to ensure the nation's 800 million rural residents get equal access to public health services," Gao said.

He also called on the country's healthcare professionals to provide a high standard of service whether they were working in cities or the countryside.

"To be an inalienable part of the nation's integrated public healthcare system, urban medical institutions and their health workers cannot shirk the responsibility to help improve rural medical care service," he said.

In its initial phase, the scheme covered nearly 600 county-level public hospitals and 1,300 grassroots clinics at townships and villages. Up to 10,000 urban medical professionals have been sent to such facilities for rotating one-year terms.

Their chief aim has been to offer high-quality medical services to rural people and help train eligible rural healthcare workers, said Vice-Minister of Health Ma Xiaowei.

In the past two years, roughly two million people living in rural areas nationwide have gained access to high-standard medical services thanks to assistance from urban doctors. Up to 560,000 rural medical workers have received training under the program.

In addition, the program has helped lower medical costs for rural patients, who no longer have to trek long distances to receive quality care at urban hospitals.

Nearly 90 percent of the rural residents covered by the scheme so far have said they were satisfied with the healthcare services now on offer at local hospitals, according to a survey by the Ministry of Health last year.

"With the improved service and slashed costs, our rural compatriots, who never ask for much, surely would applaud the program," said Gao. "However, despite their satisfaction, we medical workers cannot show any complacence because in general rural medical care is still a far cry from what is on offer in urban areas."

To close the healthcare gap between rural and urban areas and better serve rural patients, Gao said he would deepen cooperation with the Ministry of Finance, which funded the scheme alongside local governments.

(China Daily April 4, 2007)

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