China will build or maintain a clinic in every one of the country’s 700,000 villages over the next three years, the government announced today, as part of a 850bn yuan (£84.5bn) revamp of the healthcare system. The huge investment aims to upgrade medical care in the countryside, which has been neglected over the past 30 years of market-oriented development.

In a major overhaul, the government will also extend basic medical coverage and insurance to 90% of China’s 1.3 billion people, almost a third of whom currently have to meet treatment costs entirely out of their own pockets. Sickness is the major cause of poverty in China and frustration at expensive medical treatment has sparked protests and violence against hospital staff.

To address this dissatisfaction, the health ministry will train 1.4 million doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners to staff village clinics, in addition to the half a million healthcare workers in towns and cities.

“By 2011, we will remarkably improve the accessibility of basic medical care and healthcare services and alleviate the burden on the general public for medical costs,” the vice-health minister, Zhang Mao, said.

Under plans unveiled this week, the government will also build 2,000 county hospitals and build or renovate 3,700 community clinics and 11,000 health service centres in urban areas within three years. The central government will pay 40% of the costs, leaving the remainder to be covered by local authorities. Prices of essential medicines will be capped and the medical insurance scheme will be extended to nine in 10 people by 2011.
New concerns – such as Sars, bird flu, and HIV and Aids – have pushed the health issue high up the political agenda and beyond China’s borders.