China is moving towards a market economy. The greater use of market forces has made China richer, accelerated modernisation and increased productive efficiency but has created new problems, including, in the health sector, problems of inequity and allocative inefficiency. From 1997, the Chinese government committed to a national policy of regional health planning (RHP), as part of a broader commitment to harmonising social and economic development. However, RHP has been slow to impact on the equity and efficiency problems in health care.Planning requires information; better health decision-making requires better health information. Information systems constitute a resource that is vital for the health planning and the management of the health system. Properly developed, managed and used, health information systems are a highly cost-effective resource for the nation and its regions. Bureaucratic resistance, one of critical reasons is that regional health planners gained insufficient support from information system. Health information needs to adopt into the new way of government health management.The objective of the study is to contribute to the development of China's health information system (HIS) over the next 5-10 years, in particular to suggest how provincial health information systems could be made more useful as a basis for RHP. The existing HIS is examined in relation to its support for and relevance to RHP, including policy framework, institutional structures and resources, networks and relationships, data collection, analysis, quality and accessibility of information as well as the use of information in support of health planning. Data sources include key informant interviews, a questionnaire survey and various policy documents. Qualitative (questionnaire survey on provincial HIS) and quantitative (key informant interviews) approaches are used in this study. Document analysis is also conducted.The research examines information for planning within the macro and historical context of health planning in China, in particular having regard to the impacts and implications of the transition to a market economy. It is evident that the implementation of RHP has been retarded by poor performance of information system, particularly at the provincial level. However, the implementation of RHP has also been complicated by fragmented administrative hierarchies, weak implementation mechanisms and contradictions between different policies, for example, between improved planning and the encouragement of market forces in health care.To support RHP which is needs based, has a focus on improving allocative efficiency and is adapted to the new market development will require new information products and supports including infrastructure reform and capacity development. Provincial HIS needs to move from being data generators and transmitters to becoming information producers and providers. Health planning has moved to greater use of population-based benchmark and demand-side control. Therefore, information products should be widened from supply side data collection (in particular assets and resources) to include demand-side collection and analysis (including utilisation patterns and community surveys of opinion and experience). The interaction between users (the planners) and producers (the HIS) should be strengthened and regional networks of information producers and planners should be established.
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