When You Get Sick in China

Monday, November 15, 2010 23:38
Posted in category Uncategorized

Perhaps one of the scariest times to be in China is when you are sick, regardless of whether it is a bad case of food poisoning or it is something far more severe, and in my 9 years in China it is something that I continually run into..

Where to go to. Who to trust. How much it will cost. etc

More recently I myself was looking for answers to some of these questions for something simple, I have been lucky, but today I received an email from a friend who is going through something severe (requires surgery) and I thought that some of the information I gave her would be helpful to others.

In general, you will be able to find all ranges of care while in China, and obviously the closer you Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Hong Kong the better for things which are more severe. But deeper than that, it is important to note that even at the “expat clinics” there is a huge variety of price and quality as many of the expat clinics are actually housed within a local hospital, hospitals that themselves have a wide range of quality, cleanliness, service, and price.

So, lesson #1 find out which hospitals have the best care, which doctors provide the best service, understand the cost differences, and keep a record of these names/ numbers.For me, regardless of whether I am in Shanghai and Beijing, I am loyal to the United Family Group, although I am familiar (and comfortable recommending) Pudong East and Parkway as well. In each group I have found good doctors of Chinese and western ethnicity who have been trained overseas in their field, and with whom I am comfortable with. Moreover, in my experiences with each of these groups, I have never felt like I was being taken advantage of through the standard extra tests, needless drips, or prescription of antibiotics..and that the advice, case, pills they were giving me were what I needed.

The one to avoid (in my experience) is Worldwide, located in the Fudan Huashan building because their doctors are out to make a buck as fast as possible… something I learned a couple of years back I developed a cyst on my inner lip. Nothing that I was overly concerned about, but I went to see a doctor just to make sure. It was the one of the first times I was in need of a doctor, so I made an appointment at Worldwide. the first doctor (the general practitioner) took a quick peak, said it did not look like anything serious, but wanted to refer me to another doctor “Just in case”. Doctor number two comes into the room, takes a 3 second look, and says I should schedule surgery for the next day. To which I asked two questions: “What is your name?” and “will I die from this?”

So, #1, find a hospital and doctor you trust, and avoid those that you do not. This is about your health at the end of the day, and the last thing you need is to be subjected to testing, given pills, or have surgery recommended so that you can line someone’s pocket.

Second lesson, make sure that if you have insurance, that you know if the hospital can take direct billing, which you have to pay up front for, and carry your insurance card at all times. At the major expat units, you will often be able to make arrangements for treatments without prepaying all the time, but if you can get yourself to a hospital that takes direct pay from your insurance company, then you can avoid any issues altogether. Carry a list of these groups with you so that you can direct a taxi, ambulance, etc to that location as needed

Third lesson, make sure you can actually be helped in an emergency. This may initially elicit a “WHAT does he mean?”, but the simple fact is that there may be people willing to help (police, bystanders, etc), but who do not know how to most effectively help you, or get you the wrong type of help. It is a lesson that my friend’s email highlighted as she was found on lying on the sidewalk by police, taken to a local hospital, and had to call someone herself once she herself was able. Now exactly the best conditions for ensuring you are being given the highest level of care available, and not a position you want to be in.

A couple of tips.

  1. Program a few numbers in your phone so that the average Chinese person could make a phone call for you, using your phone. parents (父母); husband (husband/ wife (爱人), boss (老板), best friend (最好的朋友). Whatever you choose, make it easy for them to look at the phone and know to dial someone who (1) knows you and (2) will come right away in an emergency)
  2. Carry a card with you that says My name is ( ), and in case of emergency please contact (insert name) at (insert phone number)”. again in English and Chinese. Put this card somewhere where someone would easily find it, and if you have any medical conditions, put those on there as well .. again, in English and Chinese)

Fourth lesson, if while receiving treatment you are uneasy about anything, get a second opinion. The reality in China, some would say globally, is that health care is a money driven business, and there are doctors who are adept at finding ways at making more money (above and below the tables), so call someone you trust to find out if there is a doctor they trust and get a second opinion regardless.

Finally, register with the consulate. Seems like a minor thing to do, but one of the first steps that will be taken if you cannot be identified will be to contact consulate/ embassy officials, and anything you can do to make that process easier, the better it is for you.

In the end, take some time to work out a few details and make sure you have the information needed. There are good doctors here, and through a few phone calls they can be identified.

This is only a partial list of things that I have come up with in the last hour while thinking about the seriousness of my friend’s condition, some of my on experiences, and the discussions I have had with friends. If you have any other advice, or a review on a hospital/ doctor, feel free to post in the comments section.

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8 Responses to “When You Get Sick in China”

  1. David says:

    November 16th, 2010 at 8:20 am

    Having just helped out a friend here in Hangzhou I can certainly back up your advice (the best hospital in town doesn’t take direct billing from her or, for that matter, my) insurance. Just as well someone had the means to prepay for surgery.

    After another friend got run over by a bus right outside our office I became quite concerned about just what might have happened to him had he been run over elsewhere. It encouraged me to invest in a road ID (www.roadid.com). It doesn’t say on their website but you can get your contact details engraved in Chinese and English. It gives me peace of mind that I did have an accident whilst cycling that someone might have the presence of mind to call my wife so that she, rather than, say, an official from the bus company, might be the one making decisions about any medical treatment.

  2. Sourcing QC says:

    November 22nd, 2010 at 6:37 am

    This is always a worry for us. As a rule we don’t allow non mandarin speakers to travel alone in China, we especially like them to be accompanied when travelling inland. We have had a few instances where there were health issues and they were easily solved by using the mandarin speaker to assist. Outside the major cities, I wouldn’t expect to find the care available in London. As all our westerners travel to China, we get great travel insurance to cover any medical emergancy. The ones that have moved only go as far as HK, this is one of the reasons why. Healthcare.

  3. Fabrizio says:

    November 22nd, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    nice post, getting sick while in China has certainly been a concern of mine. Every time I eat street food, I wonder if it will be an ill-fated event.

  4. Jay says:

    December 4th, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    I’ve been living a year in China (Nanning). The thing I’m most worried about is not so much the standard of local hospitals, but the amount of antibiotics used. In the Netherlands doctors these days are a bit more reluctant to give this to everyone, because the more you use it the easier it gets defeated.
    In China people can get a lot of medicine without recipe. A lot of people use it for a few days and than don’t bother anymore. This is quite scary to me because it means most antibiotics be useless in China in a few years time.

    About food on the streets: I’ve never bothered about this. On the street at least I’m able to see that they fry it well. In restaurants you usually don’t see anything. I’ve never had any problem with food eaten outside.

  5. Danny says:

    December 5th, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    This post takes me back. Two weeks into my last semester studying Chinese in Chongqing, I twisted my knee during a basketball game. Based on some tests, I found out I would need ACL surgery. Of the hospitals in the area, the only one I would trust for this kind if surgery had a reputation for being quite expensive for this surgery (upwards of $10,000). I ended up limping around for a couple of months before flying back and having the surgery in the US (where I maintained full health insurance).

    For some medical conditions, that isn’t always an option – but in my time in China, I heard enough bad stories about Chinese doctors and hospitals to make me feel uneasy about fixing the problem there immediately.

  6. Chris says:

    December 8th, 2010 at 3:02 am

    The quality and ethics of medicine in China a constant concern, particularly for our children.
    I have been less than impressed with the Western clinics in Shanghai which strike me as even more profit focused than Chinese local hospitals. Some of the best care my family has received has been in local clinics where we were fortunate to run into caring and professional medical staff.
    Alas, I’ve also seen some very poor medical practice as well in local hospitals.
    The uncertainty of what you will get, the motivation of the doctor etc do make Chinese hospitals a risk and induce a bit of paranoia. However, to date though, most accidents / illnesses have occured away from Shanghai and the actual care we’ve received in local hospitals has been very, very good.

  7. Ferdinand Rolf says:

    January 4th, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Some insurance providers may require that you are treated in an ‘approved’ hospital or clinic. They usually leave it up to you to obtain their list of approved hospitals, but it is worthwhile… not only will you get the money back from your insurance provider easier, but the hospitals are also approved for more than just financial reasons 🙂

  8. Mick says:

    March 14th, 2011 at 5:03 am

    Even ‘reputable’ hospitals are fraudulent. The father of a friend in Guilin was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. The doctors advised that he take Iressa, a very expensive drug made by Astra Zeneca (USA). I became suspicious when the cost of the tablets was 1700RMB a week. In the US the cost of ONE tablet is US$400 ( a full course is $40,000). How does a hospital in China get the drug so cheaply? It is not available as a simple generic. The Guilin hospital never did any confirmatory tests, even though it is listed as a centre for lung cancer research.