Medical care in China is centered on hospitals. Even if you suffer from a minor ailment or need to go for a routine check-up, you have to choose one of the many hospitals in China for this purpose. Some of them also operate walk-in clinics for outpatient treatment across town.
When it comes to hospitals in China, expats have three options: The easiest is to look for a clinic aimed at foreign nationals and affluent Chinese patients. Their staff usually speaks English and/or another foreign language. Therefore, communicating with your doctor shouldn’t be a problem.
While these clinics are often very expensive, expats with international health insurance can expect to be reimbursed. The insurance company may even cooperate with selected hospitals in China, where they offer direct billing services. We highly recommend that you talk to the insurance provider first!
Secondly, you can try the so-called "VIP wards" of local hospitals in China. They offer similar care to clinics for foreign patients and employ some English-speaking staff members as well. Moreover, they are somewhat cheaper than the expat hospitals described above.
Please be aware that most public hospitals in China – including their VIP wards – don’t accept insurance coverage from international companies. An insurance plan from a Chinese provider is a definite advantage here.
However, your global insurance company may still reimburse you for treatment at the VIP clinic, though you’ll have to pay upfront first. Again, ask your insurance provider which hospitals in China they recommend and how they handle the billing process.
Lastly, you can opt for one of the many public hospitals. Depending on the facility, as well as your experience with life in China, this can be a bit of an adventure. It probably helps a lot if you have plenty of cash, lots of patience, and a friend who is fluent in Mandarin.
If you aren’t a medical emergency, be prepared to spend quite some time in the waiting room. First, you need to register (guàhào) at the admission desk, where you pay an admission fee. If you haven’t been to this clinic before, you’ll get a hospital card (binglikă). Treat it carefully as you’ll need to show it again during your visit.
The staff at the admission desk will send you to the respective department. For example, if you have an allergic rash, they’ll tell you to go to the dermatological ward (pífūkē). There you may need to register again and pay another fee.
Then you receive a number and start waiting – more or less patiently. Just have a look around to see if the number system actually works. If everyone keeps jumping the queue at will, feel free to join them after a while! Otherwise, you’ll still be waiting at the end of the day.
Sooner or later, you’ll get to see a doctor. Many public hospitals in China don’t have separate waiting areas and consultation rooms, though. If you have to undress, you may need to do so behind a curtain or screen. Otherwise, there won’t be much privacy.
The doctor will give you a diagnosis and tell you to get a prescription (chŭfāng) from the hospital pharmacy (yàofáng), or prescribe further tests. Once you go to the pharmacy, lab, or another department, you need to pay for each item or examination, and you’ll have to wait in line again.
It’s important to have an interpreter (e.g. a friend or co-worker) with you, especially if your Mandarin language skills are rudimentary at best. Not all hospitals in China accept debit or credit cards, so carrying cash is your best option. Don’t forget to ask for a receipt (fāpiào)! Your insurance provider may reimburse you later.
If your doctor seems overly pushy or alarmist, you might want to reconsider their recommendations or get a second opinion. As soon as it becomes obvious that you can afford the required tests and treatments, some doctors could be tempted to order more examinations or prescribe more medication than necessary.
It’s also helpful to know if you prefer traditional Chinese medicine, such as acupuncture or qi gong, or Western-style medicine. Thus you can consult the right doctor and get the sort of treatment you are most comfortable with.
Also be prepared for a bit of culture shock. In addition to the language barrier that awaits you in most hospitals in China, doctors may also have different attitudes to the doctor-patient relationship. Generally speaking, medical staff can be less given to explaining what’s going on and more hesitant to discuss the consultation process with their patients.
Last but not least, hygiene standards vary a lot among public hospitals in China. If you are worried about this, ask other expats which clinics they recommend.
If you need to know which hospitals in China’s major cities are at your disposal, the US Embassy provides several helpful lists. They cover medical facilities in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. If English isn’t your first language, your own embassy or consulate may have a similar list of doctors who speak your mother tongue.
Your insurance provider should tell you with which hospitals in China they cooperate. Now you just need to find the clinic that suits you best. Unfortunately, there’s no way around getting several word-of-mouth recommendations from other expats – and trying it for yourself.
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