Health and health system impacts of China's comprehensive primary health care reforms: a systematic review

Chang Cai, Shangzhi Xiong, Christopher Millett, Jin Xu, Maoyi Tian, Thomas Hone

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China's comprehensive primary health care (PHC) reforms since 2009 aimed to deliver accessible, efficient, equitable and high-quality health care services. However, knowledge on the system-wide effectiveness of these reforms is limited. This systematic review synthesizes evidence on the reforms' health and health system impacts. In August 2022, 13 international databases and three Chinese databases were searched for randomised controlled trials, quasi-experimental studies and controlled before-after studies. Included studies assessed large-scale PHC policies since 2009; had a temporal comparator and a control group; and assessed impacts on expenditures, utilisation, care quality, and health outcomes. Study quality was assessed using ROBINS-I and results were synthesized narratively. From 49,174 identified records, 42 studies were included - all with quasi-experimental designs, except for one randomised control trial. Nine studies assessed as at low risk of bias. Only five low to moderate quality studies assessed the comprehensive reforms as a whole and found associated increases in health service utilisation, whilst the other 37 studies examined single-component policies. The National Essential Medicine Policy (N=15) and financing reforms (N=11) were the most studied policies, whilst policies on primary care provision (i.e., family physician policy and the National Essential Public Health Services) were poorly evaluated. The PHC reforms were associated with increased primary care utilisation (N=17) and improved health outcomes in people with non-communicable diseases (N=8). Evidence on healthcare costs was unclear and impacts on patients' financial burden and care quality were understudied. Some studies showed disadvantaged regions and groups accrued greater benefits (N=8). China's comprehensive PHC reforms have made some progress in achieving their policy objectives including increasing primary care utilisation, improving some health outcomes, and reducing health inequalities. However, China's health system remains largely hospital-centric and further PHC strengthening is needed to advance Universal Health Coverage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1064-1078
JournalHealth Policy And Planning
Issue number9
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Jul 2023


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