By Claire Cardona
In the mountain village of Xiejiaqiao, a line snakes through the center of the downtown crossroads as residents line up for an annual health screening given by doctors from a nearby town.
By 10 a.m. on June 15, more than 400 people—half of the village population—have visited the clinic. As the line continues to grow, people begin to push others out of queue to secure a spot away from the rain.
While most of the villagers couldn’t afford the annual screening elsewhere, the Village Health Clinic of Xiejiaqiao Henglu offers a free full body check with stations set up to test the lungs, joints and heart, and to take samples of blood and urine.
Rural healthcare began to improve with the Communist Revolution in 1949 in the form of barefoot doctors who would visit villages and tend to patients. In the post-Mao era, funding for these doctors dwindled and many quit the profession or went into private practice. Widespread healthcare reform unraveled in 1979 with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and didn’t pick up again until the turn of the century.
“My last visit was in 2009 and they found that I had high blood pressure and urinary problems,” says Xia Jingfa, who lined up with his wife at 5 a.m. ”I have been taking tablets and it’s getting better.”
A younger villager hoists onto his back an old man clutching his resident ID and a health form and carries him between the stations for his checkup, which was provided by doctors from the Henglu Health Center.
Before the health clinic was built in 2004, villagers went to the town of Henglu about 2.7 miles away for checkups. When the Village Health Clinic opened in Xiejiaqiao, villagers finally had an outlet for care previously unavailable to them.
Cao Jun Hua, 77, has lived in Xiejiaqiao for more than 60 years and said that when she was a girl, there were no doctors for her to go to. The annual clinic visits have caught problems that led to a hysterectomy and the removal of her gallbladder.
Since 1949, the Ministry of Health has overseen the reform and upkeep of public health in China. The 2005 New Rural Cooperative Medical Care System was created to overhaul the healthcare system, with an emphasis placed on accessible care in rural villages. Health insurance is now available for villagers at an annual fee of 86 RMB ($13).
The system is tiered, meaning the government pays a smaller percentage of the bill depending on the location. Between 70 and 80 percent of the cost of small clinic visits at the village level are covered. Visits to township and city hospitals cost the patient more.
About 832 million people and 96 percent of China’s rural population are now covered by the system, said Yang Qing, director of the rural health department of the Ministry of Health, at a June press conference.
Health care in the villages is available but not optimal. Most village clinics stock basic medication and can provide services for the flu or cold.
“I think it is difficult for people to go to a hospital in a rural village, but the clinics are not very close to the homes so when there is an emergency people prefer to go to a larger hospital because it is safer,” says Chen Ling Yang, who recently graduated with a degree in pharmacology and lives in the neighboring village of Huangbaiwu.
Despite having the highest GDP out of the seven villages in the Henglu township, Xiejiaqiao’s clinic lacks proper means to dispose of fluids and used needles.
During the annual visit, villagers linger in the stairwell with wooden sticks projecting from veins and cotton swabs pressed against their arms to stanch bleeding from needle pricks. Zhou Tian Guo, a retired policeman helping monitor the situation removes the bloodied stick from a man’s arm. He drops it on the ground in front of a village dog who sniffs it and walks away unfazed.
“There are too many villagers here to have proper equipment [for sterile disposal],” Zhou says. “We didn’t have time to plan, but there will be a cleanup using special cleaners after.”
Conditions don’t seem to bother the doctors who draw blood through a small window.
“Yes, there are little differences between the clinic and the hospital,” says Lu Yu Zhou, who drew 310 vials of blood that will be sent to Liu Xian for analysis with professional equipment. “But I am a member of this community so I am very satisfied to help the people.”
By noon, the crowd dies down and village officials and volunteers line up to receive their exams. Far from the sterile environment present in the city hospitals, the floor is littered with blood-coated swabs, and cups of urine line a table to be packaged for testing.
“Everyone’s most important treasure is their body,” says Fan Weiping, who has been waiting in line for the blood test since early morning. “With these checkups we can gain updates on our health and hopefully catch potential dangers.”