Good health is like good plumbing: You take it for granted until it breaks down. And when it does, you want to have the right person’s number on speed-dial.
For those of us who enjoy overall good health, finding the right doctor and making plans for medical emergencies can languish near the bottom of the to-do list for months or even years. Many people simply schedule their regular check-ups and even specialist visits during trips back home. Expats from countries with national healthcare may need time to adjust to the idea of paying cash for services, while Americans may be daunted by the idea of having to navigate another complicated healthcare bureaucracy.
Healthcare in Beijing, however, is much more accessible for foreigners than you might imagine. If you do have a sudden health problem, finding world-class physicians and facilities in Beijing is not difficult. But patient beware – if you don’t have a good plan in place before a health crisis, you could end up stuck with a heftier bill than you bargained for.
Although family budgets in Beijing are growing tighter as the all-inclusive expat package becomes an endangered species, many of the hospitals and clinics we consulted unanimously said that their business had not been affected by the financial crisis. Parents told a different story: They fear the unexpected and want the best possible care, but at the same time are shouldering medical expenses by themselves.
With so many options for healthcare in Beijing, affordable or otherwise, we’ve included a selection of facilities that represent a range of choices available for families seeking great medical care, and a good deal.
International Medical Center
Officially opened in 1994, Beijing International Medical Center (IMC) bills itself as the longest-running expatriate medical institution in the city. A clinic rather than a full-service hospital, IMC is fully equipped to deal with most routine health problems. However, in some cases the patient may be transferred to an off-site facility, accompanied by one of IMC’s English-speaking nurses.
Doctors at IMC focus on family medicine and general practice, treating people of all ages. "We are located in [the Lufthansa Center in]the center of Chaoyang District, and we have long years of experience in family practice," says Dr. Ibrahim Salahat, the facility’s medical director and an employee since 1997. Compared with other facilities, IMC has less red tape. "We don’t have a complicated system. The patient comes and immediately sees the doctor."
In terms of affordability, Salahat sees his institution as a middle ground between high-end international hospitals and local Chinese institutions. "The best is somewhere in between. We deal with insurance, including paperwork and translation. Our service is not exactly Chinese price, but it’s much more convenient."
The Damage: No registration fee. Initial consultation is RMB 720. Complete annual checkups range from RMB 2,400-10,000, depending on the number of tests required.
New Century International Children’s Hospital
New Century International Children’s Hospital (NCICH) is a private, joint-venture institution, affiliated with the state-owned Beijing Children’s Hospital (BCH). Like its partner institution, NCICH only admits children, reflecting the tendency for Chinese hospitals to specialize for specific age groups or ailments. Although NCICH has foreign investors and in many ways aspires to international standards, only about 10 percent of current patients are foreigners.
Although it cooperates with BCH, NCICH has its own distinct mission. "We founded the hospital for different people," says Dr. Elena Wang, a neonatal and intensive care specialist and director of the out-patient clinic. At BCH, "The maximum number of patients per day in their outpatient clinic is 8,000, versus 120 to 180 at NCICH." The level of care is also different. "Here all the inpatients are in private rooms, but they are in shared rooms over at BCH," says Wang.
The facility shares some equipment with BCH, but since opening four years ago, NCICH has gradually acquired more specialized equipment of its own. For example, X-rays, abdominal ultrasounds and ECGs can all be done in-house. For CT scans and MRIs, NCICH accompanies patients to BCH and back.
The Damage: For members of NCICH’s Dragon and Panda Clubs, discounts of 30 to 40 percent apply on most services and numerous other perks are available. For non-members, the cost of outpatient visits is RMB 500 for a general practitioner and RMB 700 for a specialist. Routine lab tests are less than RMB 150, while X-rays vary from RMB 800-1,600. Outpatients without insurance usually require a deposit of RMB 3,000.
Beijing Children’s Hospital and China-Japan Friendship Hospital
Foreigners who don’t speak fluent Chinese are often hesitate to visit local Chinese hospitals because most staff speak little or no English. When a medical emergency or even a minor ailment comes up, being able to communicate clearly can make all the difference.
"Chinese hospitals are not for the faint-hearted," says Terry Boyd-Zhang, a teacher with two children. However, she says, "My experience with local hospitals and clinics is that they have been fine." They haven’t met "so-called ‘Western’ standards of cleanliness or privacy," but Boyd-Zhang hasn’t had any problems with treatments and has appreciated the substantial cost-savings. Terry’s daughter Saira recently had stitches in her toe, which cost a total of RMB 700 at BCH. A subsequent visit to change the dressing cost only RMB 10.
"One big dilemma when choosing a local hospital is having to show up early and take a number," says Christopher Lay, whose daughter Reina has received childhood vaccinations at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital (CJFH). At most Chinese hospitals, each step has a separate queue, and parents must pay separately at each stage of treatment. Receiving treatment for a single illness can involve standing in multiple long lines, depending on the individual case. Chinese hospitals also don’t deal with insurance companies.
However, Lay is happy with the treatment as well as the cost-savings. "The doctors are good about giving enough time to each family to answer any questions and make sure the baby is healthy," he says. "They even call to remind us that it is time for Reina to come in and get whatever vaccination she is due." Each visit to the CJFH has cost RMB 100, and vaccines have range from free to RMB 300.
The Damage: Fees at state-owned institutions vary but are generally much lower than at international clinics and hospitals.
Beijing United Family Hospital
When it comes to healthcare, Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU) is the reference point for many foreigners. It’s the only fully foreign-invested, full-service hospital in Beijing, says Vice President of Marketing and Communications Alan Kahn, who brims with pride at BJU’s achievements and capabilities. "People come to a place like BJU because they recognize that we’re providing a real level of care, quality and safety."
BJU is building a new facility that will double its bed-count to 100 by the end of the year. The list of BJU’s achievements is long. It is the only Joint Commission International-accredited institution in Beijing; it boasts a zero percent infection rate; it offers international-standard oncology facilities, and the laboratory is accredited by the College of American Pathologists.
"All things being equal, I would rather use a place like BJU," says Lay. "But even with our current insurance, we would be paying a lot of money out-of-pocket if we gave birth to a second child there."
For most basic health needs, many expats, especially those without company health insurance, choose to go elsewhere. Most of BJU’s patients are insured, although a good 15 to 20 percent of expat patients pay out-of-pocket.
Kahn insists that expats should think of BJU as a viable option even for perennial problems like diarrhea or ear infections, comparing the hospital to luxury car brand Mercedes. "People don’t always see the functionality, safety or engineering that goes into it, but hopefully they feel it and understand that it’s there."
The Damage: Services cost about 70 percent of the US average. As each patient’s situation varies, so does the cost – from under RMB 200 to RMB 1,500 for a first visit. One family reported that immunizations, regardless of the type, cost more than RMB 1,000 each time.
Australian Sonia Cahill, a mother of three, had only ever been to BJU in her two years in the capital, until her daughter started at a Chinese kindergarten and needed a check-up at a Chinese clinic. The school organized the visit. "I was amazed how cheap local services are compared with foreign services," says Cahill. "I think the whole visit cost RMB 60, where if I’d done the same thing at BJU, it probably would have been RMB 600." However, as a non-Chinese speaker, Cahill wouldn’t attempt a visit at a Chinese clinic on her own.
Beyond language, why pay a premium for care? Some, like Kahn at BJU and Salahat at IMC, say it’s worth paying extra for personalized attention and convenience. But some parents, like Boyd-Zhang, say people may just be suspicious of a low price-tag. Boyd-Zhang muses, "You think you are getting better care, because you have paid more. If paying more buys peace of mind, then it is worth it."
"In a Chinese hospital, today you see somebody, tomorrow you see another person. A new person seeing you doesn’t know anything about you, and sometimes you’re missing your papers or your lab results, so every day you have to repeat the same story."
Dr. Ibrahim Salahat, Medical Director, IMC
"I’ve been around China since 1991. I’ve been to all the main hospitals in Beijing as a patient and my child was born at Peking Union. It’s really important to have a primary doctor who knows you and knows what’s going on, and there’s a lot to that. We [at BJU]put a heck of a lot into premium quality care."
Alan Kahn, Vice President of Marketing and
"What surprises most of our friends is that [our daughter]Reina was born in a small local hospital in Shenzhen. We found out about the hospital from friends who had used the same facility. Her birth, plus a week in a private hospital room where mommy and baby were kept under observation, was under USD 1,000."
Christopher Lay, father of one
"I tend to avoid going to the doctor because it’s so expensive (and it’s always a saga). Instead, whenever we go home to Australia, I return with enough over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to cover colds and flus for the next 12 months. We then top that up with manuka honey for sore throats."
Sonia Cahill, mother of three
International Medical Center 北京国际医疗中心
24-hour emergency care. S106, S111 Lufthansa Center, 50 Liangmahe Lu, Chaoyang District (6465 1561/2/3)
New Century International Children’s Hospital
24-hour emergency care. 56 Nanlishi Lu (next to the east gate of the Beijing Children’s Hospital), Xicheng District (6802 5588) www.ncich.com.cn/en 西城区南礼士路56号 (北京儿童医院东门南侧)Beijing Children’s Hospital 北京儿童医院Daily 6.30am-10.30pm. 56 Nanlishi Lu, Xicheng District (5961 6161) www.bch.com.cn 西城区南礼士路56号
China-Japan Friendship Hospital 北京中日友好医院
Yinghua Donglu, Heping Jie, Chaoyang District (6428 2297, 24-hour nurse station 6422 2952) www.zryhyy.com.cn 朝阳区和平街樱花东路
Beijing United Family Hospital 北京和睦家医院24-hour emergency care. 2 Jiangtai Lu (in the Lido area), Chaoyang District (appointment 5927 7000, emergency 5927 7120) www.unitedfamilyhospitals.com 朝阳区将台路2号