For families moving to a new city, one of the first priorities is figuring out where to get medical treatment for check-ups, emergencies, and other health needs. The good news is that Beijing has seen an increase in private, international-standard hospitals and clinics, though the selection is still relatively limited compared with some other capitals.
The bad news is that, unless you have health insurance, international-grade facilities are very expensive. Registration and consultation fees can cost up to RMB 2,000, with tests and procedures – not to mention prescription medication – possibly running into the thousands of renminbi. However, virtually all of these international hospitals and clinics take direct billing. Patients should double-check ahead of time if their insurance provider is accepted at their medical facility of choice.
Many expats without medical insurance resort to local public hospitals, many of which have excellent reputations in their fields. They are much cheaper compared to private hospitals and see a much higher number of patients, but language barrier can be an issue. In addition, they can be a rude awakening for expats who go in expecting a western-style bedside manner.
Clinics 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 vaccinations. In most cases, anything relating to obstetrics and pre-natal care require a visit to a hospital with more specialized medical staff and facilities. Although some clinics offer emergency care, patients may need to be transferred to a hospital depending on the seriousness of the case.
Unlike in the West, where many doctors open their own private practices, medical practitioners in Beijing are usually tied to a hospital or clinic. Part-time specialists who keep regular office hours at a private clinic often also work at a public hospital.
International hospitals are usually wholly foreign-owned enterprises (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 – although 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 cautions 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.
If language isn’t an issue and/or you don’t have medical insurance, you might try visiting a local hospital. Expats often recommend Peking Union Medical College Hospital (founded in 1921) and the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, which served as the primary hospital for athletes, coaches, and officials of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Both have “VIP” sections with fewer patients and some English-speaking doctors.
The emergency phone number in Beijing is 120 (999 for English speakers). Keep in mind that ambulances in Beijing have a mixed record for two reasons for (a) getting lost and (b) being
perfunctory in their treatment of non-emergency patients. Also, Beijing’s traffic situation isn’t exactly conducive to the quick transfer of patients to medical facilities, and drivers here aren’t yet in the habit of yielding immediately to ambulances.
There’s no simple solution for this. Many taxis will simply refuse to take injured or sick passengers for fear of being held liable for any negative outcomes. Some international hospitals have their own 24-hour emergency call centers with English- and Chinese-speaking operators. However, ambulances are still subject to traffic constraints.
To make matters even more complicated, there’s no Good Samaritan law in China. This may explain why many Chinese are unwilling to get involved in emergency situations. Bystanders who offer help may be held liable even if their actions help resuscitate the injured party. A patient who is given cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) may survive, but non-qualified rescuers have been sued for the broken ribs that can occur in the process.
When in doubt, call 120 and report the emergency. However, consider carefully whether there’s a good reason to become directly involved in a situation.
That said, for the sake of one’s own family, friends, and colleagues, most international hospitals and clinics in Beijing offer internationally-recognized 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 care within the US.
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.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 beijingkids Home and Relocation Guide. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Lydia_Shiningbrightly & Gotcredit (flickr)