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Why China’s Health Reform Could Affect the World

Jim Yong Kim's picture
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World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Wu Zhiyi / World Bank


China’s high economic growth during the last three decades is well known. But less attention has been paid to the dividends of that growth and the country’s rapid urbanization: China has lifted half a billion people out of poverty in the last 30 years – an historic feat.

But the country’s leadership knows that many challenges remain – some coming as a result of the rapid growth. For 30 years, the World Bank Group has had a strong partnership with the government and we’ve recently completed two landmark joint studies: China 2030 (guided by the leadership of my predecessor, Robert Zoellick), and the Urban China report, released just a few months ago.

These studies called for major reforms, from the financial sector, to the environment and to the rights of people moving from rural areas to cities; China’s leadership has embraced many of the findings and has started enacting several of them.

This week, we launched a new study on reforming China’s health system. I think this study could have an impact not only on China but on the rest of the world.

China has made great progress in recent years in providing its citizens much greater access to health care services, but the country’s leadership knows more needs to be done. After meeting earlier this week with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, Vice Premier Liu Yandong and other senior officials, they asked us and the World Health Organization to work with the government to help it provide affordable, quality care, especially for China's aging population and rising middle class facing chronic diseases.

With greater urbanization, a longer life expectancy, a more sedentary lifestyle, air pollution and more processed food, people are more prone to various diseases, especially diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases.

These chronic conditions now account for a staggering 80 percent of the overall disease burden in China. More than 200 million patients suffer from hypertension and more than 90 million from diabetes.

Many of the challenges facing China today are similar to those faced by high income countries for decades – non-communicable diseases, aging, rising citizen demand and expectations, and unsatisfactory quality. But the outlook for the country’s health system doesn’t have to be dire. China, in fact, has an opportunity to leap frog decades of bad practice by developing new models of health care delivery and implementing them at scale.

We believe China can move to a people-centered approach providing more health care for the money while tapping emerging information, communication, and medical technologies.

It’s clear to me that as China gets wealthier, it’s also determined to get healthier. The health sector is growing faster than the general economy. How this growth is managed will have a tremendous impact on China's economy.

This new study will draw on the best global knowledge and Chinese experience to offer practical solutions to help China strengthen its performance in health service delivery –at the lowest possible cost—while improving the health of all its citizens.

If China is as successful in this process as we think it can be, we believe its health care reform can become a model for many other countries. This will not only benefit China’s 1.3 billion people – it will benefit many, many other countries. Here’s my forecast: Lessons learned here in the next few years will soon spread around the world.

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