I’m normally a very healthy person and hardly ever need to see a doctor. I didn’t think that I’d ever be able to write this article.
However, I’ve recently had a couple of interesting encounters with medical professionals in China. I thought that this might be a good time to share my experiences.
So, what happens if you get sick in China?
China’s healthcare system – the basics
China doesn’t have doctor’s clinics like those in the UK or USA. In China, if you’re unwell you see a doctor in an actual hospital.
In most cases, you will be able to be treated at your local hospital in the city you’re in. If you teach at a medical university, there may even be a local hospital that is attached to your school.
Hospitals in China are modern and clean with comprehensive medical equipment and facilities.
Even in rural areas, the quality of healthcare has improved dramatically in recent years.
If you get sick in China, you have to visit a hospital to see a doctor (Photo: UI International Programs on Flickr).
Any medicine prescribed can be obtained from the hospital pharmacy. This is normally Western medicine, not traditional Chinese medicine.
Registering at the hospital
If you need a doctor in China, it’s best to ask one of your students or a school helper to accompany you to the hospital.
You’ll need to bring your passport the first time you go to hospital.
When you arrive, the first thing you’ll need to do is to register as a patient. You’ll be given a medical card and you may have to pay a nominal fee of about RMB 5-10 at the reception.
Where you need to go after you have registered depends on your illness. Each hospital has several specialist departments and where you’re sent after you register depends on what you’re suffering from.
Hospitals in China are modern and clean.
When you get to the specialist clinic, there may be other people waiting to be seen. The wait time depends on many factors, such as the time of day, staffing levels, other patients’ needs and so on.
Remember, there’s more than a billion people in China so try to be patient!
Medical treatment fees in China
On top of the registration fee, you will also need to pay for the treatment that you have received and any medicines that you are prescribed. This will vary according to the illness that you have.
Seeing a doctor for minor ailments (e.g. a fever or a cold) in China generally costs less than RMB 100.
Your school in China will usually offer free medical insurance as part of your contract.
In my contract, it states that this insurance covers “out-patient and emergency treatments, accidental injuries, in-patient treatments, diseases and traffic accidents”.
However, when I’ve been sick and needed to see a doctor in China, I’ve always had to pay for this myself.
It might be worth clarifying with your school exactly what is covered before you sign the contract.
My interesting trip to the dentist
I recently had a terrible toothache so a Chinese helper took me to the hospital to see a dentist.
I was told that my wisdom tooth had rotted and needed to be extracted.
Teacher Kim had to visit the dentist in China.
However, my wisdom tooth was impacted, i.e. it had come out at an angle and had knocked a huge hole in my big molar. Pulling it would not be easy!
I was sent home and told to come back in six days. I had to endure another week of pain and sleepless nights.
The extraction was the scariest part and took two hours.
I have been blessed with a set of teeth that is so good that a dentist once said that if everyone had teeth like mine, every dentist in the world would go out of business.
The last time I had a tooth pulled was probably when I was about four years old!
To cut a long story short, after a lot of grimaces and whimpering on my part, the tooth finally came out.
But that was not the end of it. The next step was to fix this gaping huge hole in my big molar.
I thought that the dentist would simply fill the cavity but she decided instead to completely file down the molar and put a crown on it.
The cost of my dental work in China
The root canal process took a further two months and the total cost of the treatment came to RMB 3,400 (about £348). That was more than half my monthly salary at the time.
However, my British friends told me that if I’d had the same procedure done in the UK, it would’ve cost me nearly £3,000!
I guess I'm lucky that things are a lot cheaper in China.
Over the course of my treatment, I got to know my attractive dentist quite well. I even began to look forward to my trips to the dental clinic!
Surprisingly, she could speak English really well and told me that her English name was Linda.
We became friends and even went to see a movie and had dinner together. Things did not progress any further than that (she’s married!) but it does show how one can make friends in the strangest of circumstances.
Teacher Kim with Chinese dentist friend, Linda.
My epic visit to the doctor
Just a few months ago, I started getting an itch on my thigh.
I thought it was nothing more than jock rash so I put some antiseptic on it and forgot about it.
The antiseptic didn’t work and a few days later a cluster of vesicles erupted under my armpit. That’s when I realized that it was something a tad more serious than jock itch.
I asked a student helper to take me to see a doctor.
Unfortunately, the doctor couldn’t speak English and the student helper had to translate his diagnosis into English on his phone.
A ‘herpes’ scare I’d rather forget about
When the doctor told me I had herpes, it really scared me. A million questions popped into my head.
Where did I get it from? Who gave this to me? How long have I had this? Is it the virus that causes cold sores or the virus that causes genital herpes (an STI)?
I sure as hell didn’t want to live with painful recurring outbreaks for the rest of my life!
I wondered whether a doctor could really diagnose herpes simply by sight, without doing any tests.
One of my biggest concerns was whether a woman would ever want to marry me knowing I had herpes. The stress became so great I had to have counseling to cope.
Since I was not able to get any clear answers out of the doctor (because he couldn’t speak English), I wasn’t convinced that I had herpes.
Dr Google to the rescue!
I decided to research my symptoms on the internet to find out exactly what I had. 'Dr Google' to the rescue!
As time went on, I became increasingly convinced that I was simply having a case of shingles.
Teacher Kim used Google in China to determine what illness he had.
Shingles made a lot of sense – I have had chickenpox, I had an itch (post-herpetic itch is a common complication of shingles), the rash was on one side of my body, and the rash left scars that were visible for weeks (herpes sores leave no scars).
On a recent holiday in the UK, it was confirmed by a doctor that I didn’t have herpes. It was shingles as I had expected.
I was really relieved.
Simple ailments versus more serious matters
If you’re sick in China and have a simple ailment like a fever or a cold, seeing a doctor is a straightforward matter.
If it is something more serious though, my story shows how a misdiagnosis or incorrect translation of a diagnosis can have a negative impact on a patient.
This is something we all need to be mindful of as foreigners in China. After all, we all get sick!
Have you been sick in China? If so, what was your experience like?