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Planet Health Care

As debate rages in Washington, the answers are out there. You just need to know where to look.

Chinese healthworker Li Chunyan examines a patient at a small private clinic at Datang village, in China's rural Congjiang county, Guizhou Province in 2006. (Reinhard Krause/Reuters)

BOSTON — Health care reform was the main event in Washington, D.C., again this week.

With good reason: the fate of America's troubled system will no doubt affect the $14 trillion U.S. economy for good or ill, depending on how the drama plays out.

Moreover what happens in the U.S., which produces more than 20 percent of global economic output, matters greatly to the economies of the rest of the world.

So, yes, play close attention to the health care debate and all the politics behind it.

But while members of Congress are spitting on each other about creeping socialism, death panels to kill Grandma and the pros and cons of a public option, GlobalPost correspondents have been quietly searching for ground truth, health care-style.

Their mission: To find out what's really happening in the hospitals, clinics and waiting rooms around the world. What works? What doesn't? And which of these global lessons should America adopt, consider or avoid?

Over the past two months our correspondents have amassed a wide variety of insights and observations — from a sick China, to a healthy Confucian influence in Taiwan, to a booming India, a healthy Australia, a faltering South Africa, as well as the various schemes in Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

Here's a quick tour of Planet Health Care, or more simply: 10 things you need to know about what's happening around the world right now.

1) China is attempting to reform its giant health care system — with mixed results.

China's system was once a model of low-cost and efficient delivery that served millions of patients. But as its socialist economy broke down in the 1980s, so did its health care system. Since 1980, the percentage of personal income Chinese spend on health care has doubled. In 2006, a survey showed that nearly half of Chinese people refused to see a doctor when they fell ill. Meanwhile, some 200 million are uninsured.

So earlier this year Beijing set out to fix it. Health care reform is being rolled out in stages through 2011, beginning with a basic opt-in insurance program for hundreds of millions of rural residents.

To document these sweeping changes, correspondent Kathleen E. McLaughlin and photographer Sharron Lovell traveled from the remote mountains of Guizhou to the top hospitals in Beijing. Here's their three-part report, The China Syndrome.

2) Health care in rural China is bad, and in some areas, non-existent.

As Kathleen and Sharron report, many villagers in remote Guizhou province — one of China’s poorest — suffer a predicament that is all-too-common among China’s estimated 800 million rural residents. Faced with a health care system so fragmented and underfunded, the sick often go bankrupt trying to get better.

While things are still grim, there have been early successes. Basic insurance unveiled this year has encouraged more Chinese to visit doctors. “Before the patients would only come in when they were seriously ill,” one doctor said. “Now they come for treatment when they first get sick.”