Nothing makes a foreign country feel more foreign than being ill and being able to find the right help. Don’t panic; major cities like Beijing have both public and private hospitals, as well as a small number of private clinics. Western treatments are widely available and many choose to supplement with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
If your health insurance covers international hospitals, you’re in luck; doctors from international hospitals and clinics such as International SOS and Beijing United Family Hospital are just a phone call away.
If you don’t have health insurance, don’t despair. Many public hospitals such as Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital have international departments where staff speak decent English and provide a better level of service. If, however, you must go to a local Chinese hospital, it’s best to know what to expect and to be mentally prepared.
Getting Over the Shock
We hate to break it to you, but Chinese public hospitals are not designed with the patient’s convenience in mind. In such an overpopulated country, speed and efficiency are key. Although appointments can nowadays be made through the Internet and via telephone in some cases, most patients just walk in and wait in line to be treated.
The first time you walk in a local hospital, you might feel like you’re in a maze as well as blind and deaf. Most of the staff in local hospitals don’t speak English and there is no one to rely on except yourself, so bring a Chinese-speaking friend if your language skills are not up to par.
You should also understand that everything – from car parking to IV drips – must be paid for upfront, so expect to do a lot of walking back and forth. We suggest you look up the hospital’s floor plan ahead of time to get a general idea of the layout; this is usually available in English and Chinese on the website.
Most hospitals offer a full range of medical services, from check-ups to operations, and most Chinese doctors are very experienced. You can expect accurate and efficient treatment, but do not expect a pleasant bedside manner; many doctors won’t take the time to explain what’s wrong with you.
Last but not least, be patient. Chinese public hospitals are very crowded and you may have to wait a while for your turn. Bring snacks and reading material. Be polite but firm with line cutters; most people will back off if you speak up and show that you aren’t passive.
How to Get Treatment
When you enter the hospital lobby, there should be a floor plan and directory showing the location of the various departments. Take a picture with your smart phone and look for the queue to take a number (挂号, guahao).
At the registration counter, you will be asked which department you want to visit and what type of doctor you wish to see. Luckily, treatment is very cheap at Chinese public hospitals. Assuming you have no insurance, it costs only RMB 5 to see a general doctor and around RMB 25 to see a specialist. If it is your first time at a local hospital, you will also have to buy a blue medical logbook (RMB 1.5) in which each doctor will record details of your ailments and procedures. Be sure to queue early because there is a limit on the number of guahao given out each day.
After you pay the consultation fee, take your stamped guahao paper and head to the relevant department. There is usually a nurse’s station in each department; give the nurse your guahao paper and blue logbook, then wait for your name to be called. Do not stray too far or bother asking the nurse how long you can expect to wait; she will not know the answer either.
After all the waiting and back-and-forth, your actual face time with the doctor may seem unbelievably short. Often without even telling you their name, they will swiftly ascertain the cause of your illness and ask you to go pay for your treatments. Do not expect transparency; the doctor – and only the doctor – knows what they are doing.
After the bills are paid, proceed to the hospital’s pharmacy with your prescription. If you are prescribed an injection or an IV drip (which Chinese doctors love for some reason), you will need to pick up the bags of fluids yourself and bring them to the nurse. Some hospitals have facilities scattered across different buildings, so you might need to walk from one to the other if the doctor requests a specific test.
Your guahao is only valid for one-time use; you will have to queue again the next time you visit the hospital.
The first thing you should note is the local emergency number: 120 – not 911, 112, or 999. An ambulance is supposed to arrive within 20 minutes. Foreigners can also call the English-language emergency hotline at 6525 5486.
Unless otherwise specified, the ambulance will take you to the closest emergency center. You will be charged for the pick-up service (starting from RMB 100) and first aid treatment on the road, but the fee is not significant.
Most public hospitals have a 24-hour emergency center, but only major hospitals can treat critical conditions during the night. Some of the larger international hospitals, such as Oasis International Hospital and Beijing United Family Hospital, have their own ER departments and hotlines. Be sure to save the number in your phone ahead of time.