During July 2014 the newest Chinese hospital ship (the Daishandao or “Peace Ark”) was in Hawaii for joint naval exercises. The public was allowed to look around and it was quickly obvious why this ship has been showing up in so many countries offering free medical care. The Peace Ark serves more of a diplomatic than a military function. For one thing the ship has limited ability to receive casualties while at sea (a single small helicopter pad) and is built for receiving patients and providing medical care from dockside.
It was back in 2008 that the Chinese South Sea Fleet put the Peace Ark, China's first true hospital ship, into service. China has six older hospital ships but these are converted transports. There is also a convertible (to a hospital ship) transport and a recently purchased used Russian hospital ship that will be refurbished. China has also built emergency medical facilities that fit into a standard cargo container. Hook up water and electricity, and you can care for all but the most severely injured casualties. These are used to equip at least one of the other hospital ships in service.
The Peace Ark is a Type 920 Hospital Ship that is 178 meters (570 feet) long, displaces 14,000 tons and was designed and built as a hospital ship. It has 300 beds, plus eight operating rooms (that can handle 40 major surgeries a day), laboratories, pharmacy and crew quarters. The Type 920 has a ship crew of about 420 and about half are medical personnel. There is a lot of automation, which reduces crew size. For example the entire ship, especially the medical portion, is closely monitored by vidcams and some other sensors. The medical facilities are full of the latest world-class medical gear (most of it non-Chinese) and for those familiar with Chinese medical care looks like any modern, upscale hospital in a major Chinese city. Many parts of China could benefit from that kind of visit, but these areas are usually far from the sea, or a river that is navigable for ocean going vessels.
The Type 920 class was designed with disaster relief and building good will in mind. This ship can get up most major (especially Chinese) rivers, and thus can reach many areas where natural disasters cause massive amounts of injuries. China was also apparently copying the U.S. Navy, which has long used its two hospital ships for providing medical care to areas where there isn't much to begin with, and to areas hit by natural disasters.
The two U.S. Navy two hospital ships, Mercy and Comfort, were built as tankers in the 1970s, and converted to hospital ships in the 1980s. They displace 70,000 tons each and are 279 meters (894) feet long. Each ship has 12 operating rooms, fifty emergency room beds, a thousand patient beds and a crew of 286 (61 civilians and 225 sailors), plus 956 medical personnel. Fully air conditioned, and stocked with medical supplies and the latest medical equipment, they bring the highest level of medical care to parts of the world that have rarely seen any modern medicine at all. These ships can show up in an area with little medical care and, in two weeks, see about 10,000 patients, including surgery for several hundred.