Hospital Caters to China’s Wealthy and Poor
Thursday, January 4, 2007
At the TEDA International Cardiovascular Hospital just outside Beijing, patients can choose from six levels of service.
At the lowest end, for about $6.70 a night, patients must share a small room with others. The biggest suite at the hospital, on the other hand, costs about $3,200 a night and occupies half the floor of a building. It offers satellite television, an indoor garden, a conference room, two bedrooms, a massage chair and a private gym.
“It’s just like an airplane,” says Liu Xiaocheng, the hospital’s president. “In the front of the plane, they have the first class. In the middle, business class. At the end they have the economy class. But they’re all going to the same destination. It’s the market!”
Dr. Liu’s 600-bed heart hospital is an anomaly in China, where the state is struggling to provide health care at a reasonable cost to its more than 1.3 billion people. While a small slice of China’s urban elite have Western-style health insurance, the vast majority of people are left to fend for themselves, paying out of their pockets to see doctors and buy medicines. For costly surgeries, most people are simply forced to borrow from relatives and friends. Some are denied treatment if they can’t pay.
So the Chinese government, which regulates the costs of medicines and fees at public hospitals, has opted to keep those prices as low as possible, to ensure that poor people can at least afford to see a doctor and get basic care. Those public hospitals are often costly for the government to maintain, eating up state subsidies. Privately owned hospitals, which account for only around 5% of China’s some 18,000 hospitals, may be run more efficiently and have more freedom in what they charge patients, but many Chinese citizens can’t afford them.
Dr. Liu’s hospital is trying to steer a course between those public and private extremes, striking a balance between the universal access the communist system once promised and higher efficiency a market mechanism can bring. He appeases Communist officialdom with cheap medical care for impoverished orphans, while simultaneously courting China’s wealthiest patients with the $3,200-a-night suite.
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