From a traditional agrarian society, Bhutan embarked upon the road to modernisation in the early sixties with the starting of the First Five-Year Plan. Before the introduction of modern medicine and healthcare system in Bhutan, the country solely relied on its traditional system of healing. Modern healthcare was introduced in Bhutan in the 1960s. However careful attention had always been given to traditional practice and the people's perception of illness. This has ensured that the modern healthcare services and indigenous medical services develop simultaneously.
Herbal-based, traditional medicine is well established and integrated into the general health services and remains a popular form of healthcare.
Access to traditional medicine in the country has been greatly increased with 31 traditional drungtshos (doctors) providing indigenous medical services in all dzongkhags (districts). Traditional medicine continues to hold an important place in the formal healthcare system as it not only adds an important dimension to the country's system of healthcare, but also provides an alternative form of healthcare.
An integrated healthcare delivery system was foreseen as an effective strategy to reach the scattered population in Bhutan's rugged terrain. The declaration of Alma Ata in 1978 adopting a primary healthcare approach to achieve 'Health for All' has also served accelerate health service development in this direction. Today, Bhutan has one of the best-organised primary healthcare systems in the Region. Even as a late starter in the modern healthcare system, Bhutan managed to cover over 90% of the population with basic healthcare service, despite the extremely difficult terrain with scattered and inaccessible population.
The government has maintained a system of complete free healthcare for not only the Bhutanese citizens but also all those who reside in the country. In 1961 there was hardly any modern facility in Bhutan. Today, the country has more than 29 hospitals, 160 Basic Health Units and a 90% health coverage with basic services. The health status of the population has improved markedly, especially during the last 10 years. National surveys conducted in 1984, 1994, and 2000 showed a tremendous increase in the access to safe drinking water and dramatic decrease in mortality and morbidity. The population growth rate has been brought down from 3.1% in 1994 to 2.5% in 2000.
The national healthcare delivery system is characterised by the central level being responsible for the administration, training and major referrals, and the districts managing the delivery of basic services to the population through a network of district hospitals, Basic Health Units (BHUs) and outreach clinics (ORCs).
Till the end of the Eighth Plan (June 2002), the focus of health sector has been to increase the accessibility to healthcare. Basic healthcare service and essential drugs are provided free of charge to all the patients.