Healthcare in Beijing is one of those things you may want to know a lot about but hope to never need. It provides significant peace of mind in case of emergency and is crucial for families who will be in and out of doctor’s offices with their children for routine checkups.
Hospitals have come a long way in Beijing, especially over the last ten years or so. International-standard facilities operated both by Chinese and overseas companies – staffed with both Chinese and foreign doctors – are now available in almost every district of the city.
Overall, healthcare in Beijing adheres to the maxim of “you get what you pay for.” Low-cost care means long lines at a state-run hospital, with overworked doctors (often medical school graduates doing their residency) and assembly-line procedures. For more on what to expect from a Chinese public hospital, see p66.
As most foreign residents of Beijing will opt for western rather than Chinese medicine, this section focuses on international clinics and hospitals.
One main difference between the medical experience overseas and in Beijing is that doctors are all based out of hospitals and clinics rather than their own private practices. As such, a basic appointment will likely take place at a clinic. Staff physicians who work at clinics may or may not also have office hours at an affiliated hospital.
Clinics are designed to provide routine services such as checkups, pediatric medicine, and outpatient care. They may also offer dentistry, mental health services, physical rehabilitation, official physical examinations (for visas or other purposes), and inoculations. In most cases, anything relating to obstetrics and pre-natal care will not be available at clinics, requiring instead a hospital visit.
Although emergency cases may be accepted at a clinic for initial diagnosis, patients may need to be transferred to the main hospital depending on the seriousness of the case.
International hospitals are usually a wholly foreign-owned enterprise (WFOE) or a joint venture between an international medical operator and a Chinese hospital. Foreign patients will find the process and surroundings familiar and therefore comforting, but bear in mind that the attending doctor will likely still be Chinese – albeit English-speaking – and that not every international-standard hospital is equipped to handle all scenarios. For example, patients requiring major surgery, particularly emergency surgery, may need to be transferred to a Chinese hospital, both for the operations themselves and for continuing care post-surgery.
These caveats aside, international hospitals will likely be the first choice for most foreign residents for both urgent and routine care. They offer niceties such as reminders for checkups and some have more than one location, offering access near your home, office, and school. There will also be a greater emphasis on preventative care. Paradoxically, while Chinese locals will go to a hospital for even minor maladies like the flu, most foreigners avoid hospitals, seeing them as centers for serious care.
The official medical emergency number is 120. Non-Chinese speakers can call the number and begin speaking in English; if the operator does not speak English, they will transfer the call to an English-speaking operator. Ambulances in Beijing have a mixed record for two reasons. They are notorious for getting lost and being perfunctory in their treatment of non-emergency patients.
Also, Beijing’s traffic situation is not conducive to the quick transfer of patients to medical facilities, and drivers here are not yet in the habit of yielding to ambulances. There is no simple solution for this. Many taxis will not take injured or sick passengers for fear of being held liable for any negative outcomes.
There is no Good Samaritan law in China. This may explain why many Chinese are unwilling to become involved in emergency situations. Bystanders who offer help may be held liable even if everything works out for the better. A patient who is given cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) may survive, but non-qualified rescuers have been sued for the broken ribs that often occur in the process.
If you are unsure, call 120 and report the emergency, but consider carefully whether there’s a good reason to become directly involved in a situation. That said, for one’s own family, friends, and workplace, most international hospitals and clinics in Beijing offer CPR and first aid training in English. It’s a good idea to take a course, especially for people who live farther away from a major medical center.
Insurance for the Uninsured
For those who aren’t insured by their company or whose insurance doesn’t cover care at international-standard facilities, self-pay options are available. Some larger hospitals offer their own membership-type programs, which provide discounts on services.
However, for full insurance, companies like Now Healthcare and William Russell that specialize in serving expats offer coverage for medical treatments and often repatriation, should the person wish to be treated in their home country for a serious condition or injury. Americans should note that most of these plans require separate riders or plans for US care.
Insurance agents in Beijing such as Expat Solutions Consulting Ltd. and Pacific Prime Insurance Brokers can give prospective buyers options based on their needs and wants, including family coverage, repatriation, and any other special considerations.
Photos: Christian Triebert and Scott & Elaine Van Der Chijs (Flickr)