Improving public health

Updated: 2012-08-21 08:04

(China Daily)

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The Ministry of Health has set itself an ambitious goal of raising the country's most significant indicators of public health to the point that they are on par with those of intermediately developed countries by 2020.

As is the case with many of the authorities' other goals, the chief difficulty in this one will come in finding the best means of reaching it.

Among the particular obstacles are the tremendous imbalances that exist among various regions and groups in China, which become evident from an inspection of Ministry of Health data.

Life expectancy in China, for instance, had already risen to 73 years by 2005. Even so, a difference of 15 years in average life spans still exists today between those living in eastern areas and those in western areas.

The Ministry of Health is right in pointing out that solving our public health conundrum will require a comprehensive remedy. The proposal it has put forward - bringing all of the chief functions of the government agencies involved in public health under the charge of a single institution - seems sensible.

In the country's 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-15), medical reforms are to take place in three main fields: security, drugs and services. These are now under the jurisdiction of three separate institutions whose work, as the health minister has admitted, is coordinated in anything but a smooth way.

In response, the ministry has proposed that the government agencies that oversee public health, medical security, family planning, environmental protection and sports be gradually integrated into a single ministry.

But so large a reshuffle will not take place any time soon; bringing about such a change is beyond what the current administrative establishment can afford.

What can be done now, though, and has to be done immediately, is to ensure that the authorities work with each other.

The first step toward that end will be to demolish administrative barriers that prevent departments from cooperating. Having a smooth chain of command will also be essential.

After all, history, among its many lessons, has taught us that government agencies do not necessarily function better the bigger and more powerful they become.