As one of the very few expat bloggers working in a Chinese hospital I feel it is my responsibility to share some tips on going to the ER in China, as well as a bonus helping of awful hospital experiences. Hopefully, you’ll never need to use these.
Bring someone with you
Chinese hospitals are not designed for the patient’s convenience, so even if you have excellent language skills, odds are that you will need someone to assist you while you are there. For foreign teachers I would strongly recommend bringing a co-worker or someone from the foreign affairs office since they will generally be able to use the school’s clout on your behalf.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I saw a doctor, and then was sent to collect the prescription myself. Had I been in too much pain to move, I would have had to wait for one of the nurses to help me (and they are almost always busy or “busy”). Going with a friend will greatly speed up the process.
Hospitals also do not typically provide food for their patients, so you will need to arrange meals for yourself.
Example: On a trip to Hunan province, my friends and I ended up staying in a rural guesthouse. Around 3am it was clear that two of my friends had food poisoning (one of them is now my wife). By the time the hospital in town was open, both of them had vomited at least 5 times. My wife threw up out the window on the way to the hospital, again in the bushes out front, and in 3 or 4 random sinks in random offices, our other friend wasn’t faring much better.
Over the next 6 hours they both received 4 IV’s and a couple injections. I had to leave the ER to go to the pharmacy at least 6 times. I’m not sure how they would have been treated if I had not been there to help.
While a trip to the hospital isn’t nearly as expensive as it is in the US, few hospitals outside of China’s major cities are going to allow you to pay with a bank card, and none will provide service prior to payment (at least for ER treatment). I would suggest a minimum of 800rmb, but the treatment I received in yesterday’s case was only 25rmb.
Rough price guide
- Seeing a Dr. 5-10rmb, seeing a specialist 15+rmb
- staying overnight in a “common” room ~15-20rmb, staying in a VIP room ~800+rmb
- Most surgeries are less than 1,000rmb
- IV’s and injections ~30-40rmb
You are getting an IV
China has one of, if not the highest, rates of IV prescription. Nearly 80% of the time you go to the hospital you will be prescribed one. For anything related to vomiting or diarrhea you can expect them to hang one or two bags of saline which will help re-hydrate you, and bags of very strong antibiotics for virtually any infection.
While this isn’t considered to be a very good practice, when you are sick enough to go to the ER, it’s probably worth accepting their treatment.
Don’t expect comfort
I’ve heard that when women are waiting to give birth, the doctor will come by their bed, lift up the sheets, and give a pelvic exam without saying a single word to the patient. I have even heard of a woman getting slapped for screaming too loudly while giving birth, and that’s at one of the top hospitals in China.
Generally speaking “patient experience” is not a consideration, but you can be your own advocate. If they want to give you an x-ray without a lead vest, ask for one. If they try to use a needle that you did not personally see them remove from the packaging, ask for a new one. While they might think of you as the demanding foreigner, your health is worth the bad reputation.
Trust your doctors
Most of the doctors in China are better than the hospitals they serve, so even though the hospital may look awful you can probably trust your doctor. This is especially true when you need treatment for an infection, vomiting or diarrhea, since these are common diseases and of the local variety, your doctor has probably seen them hundreds of times. Also a dead foreigner is the last thing any hospital wants, and they are more likely to send you on to the next hospital than treat a disease they don’t know how to handle.
That being said, it is best to go to the highest level hospital you can quickly reach, and avoid clinics when possible. I have been told that clinics employ the doctors that hospitals won’t. Also only agree to having a surgery if it absolutely cannot be postponed. While it would be cheaper in China, it’s not worth the risk.
Example: In the dead of winter on a trip to Zhongdian, Yunnan my friend woke up in the middle of the night and began vomiting blood. We both knew it was altitude sickness, but the hospital wouldn’t open for another 10 hours. The hospital was unheated, and the IV bottles had to be warmed over the space heater to keep them from freezing.
When they tried to find a bed for her, it was like something out of the worst version of Goldilocks. The first bed was too bloody, the second bed had too many urine stains, and luckily the third bed was just right. After 3 IV’s and a few hours on oxygen, she was able to get on the bus and make it back down the mountain.