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China is finding solutions for shortage of doctors


11-04-2014 13:12 BJT

With China working to alleviate problems in its overburdened public healthcare system, it finds the biggest problem is a shortage of doctors. The government, hospitals, investors, and even mobile application developers are proposing possible solutions. How do these solutions work? Can they really help China’s over-stressed patients and doctors?

One of China’s greatest public demands is for better health care. Chinese patients routinely suffer from difficulty in finding the right doctor in the right hospital, and from long lines once they do.

"Take Zhongshan Hospital as an example. Between 120 and 130 thousand patients register here every day. Many of my patients told me how difficult it is to see me. Some even wait the whole night. So many want to see me -- one morning I saw 82 patients. For most patients I can only spend couple minutes with them," Bai Chunxue, doctor with Zhongshan Hospital, said.

China has 1.4 physicians per 1,000 people compared to 2.4 in the United States and 2.8 in the UK, according to the World Health Organization. Moreover, unlike in many other countries where local community doctors take care of most patients and have a long-term relationship with them, in China, even for simple diseases like the flu, people prefer to turn to top-ranking general hospitals.

"Our community hospitals have three deficiencies. The use of high-end technologies in them is low, and even when those techonologies are available, few staff can use them. Thirdly, the patients themselves don’t trust the neighborhood hospitals." Bai said.

The result is this. Every good hospital in the country is full of long lines that mean a checkup for even the simplest problem can take an entire day. With the Internet changing many things in life, however, some are now hoping that mobile applications can soon impact a patient’s entire treatment process. Big companies like Tencent and Alibaba have made large investments in mobile health apps. These apps allow patients to book appointments, pay hospital bills and relay information to their doctors. But still this rosy picture can only become a reality when there are enough doctors to staff the systems that are being designed.

"The internet can improve efficiency, the service experience, but in a sector like this where supply and demand are not balanced, the internet is not going to be able to add much of value or change the sector thoroughly, as Alibaba, JD and Ctrip did to their traditional markets. It’s difficult to do that in a sector that is short of resources," Zhang Suyang, general partner of IDG Capital Partners, said.

Another possible solution to the doctor shortage is that the government is now talking about lifting what is called the one-hospital rule. It now says doctors may practice in only one hospital, and cannot do anything in addition to that. Doctors need permission from state-owned hospitals where they practice before they can go into the private sector. In fact an easing of this rule is now under trial in several cities including Beijing and Shanghai. The problem is the doctors are not responding.

"Multiple practice is just an empty slogan. Even if popular doctors are allowed more than one practice, the number of patients they can see is still limited. Multiple practices will wind up being staffed only by the more junior doctors,” Duan Tao, president of Shanghai First Maternity And Infant Hospital, said.

The population in most countries including China is aging and medical demands are increasing. China is trying to revamp its unpopular national healthcare system. Information technology, multiple practice and privatization are all being tested. But at the end of the day, the dearth of doctors is the crucial issue.

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