Getting Sick in China: Navigating Chinese Medical Care by Brody Weinrich

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A sharp pain struck my chest, just to the left of my heart. Concern flooded my face, shortly to be relieved by a sense of denial as my mind rushed to downplay the problem. “Sure, you’ve been coughing and dealing with sinus issues for two weeks, but that pain was definitely a result of you coughing so hard. Nothing to worry about,” my brain justified.

Several factors worked together to create this thought sequence. I always hate having to admit to myself when I’m sick and need to miss work. I also have a history of getting occasional sinus infections and have grown resistant to alarm over this type of sickness. And, uniquely so in my new home, I was hesitant about jumping into the uncertainty of the Chinese medical system.

After about day of discomfort when coughing or breathing while walking, I told my contact teacher I needed help scheduling an appointment at the hospital.

For foreigners, the thought of navigating healthcare in China may be intimidating. The system seems so strange.  Social insurance is different, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western medicine interact in unknown ways, and the only real way to get Western medicine is to go to a hospital—even if you aren’t “really” sick. I couldn’t tell you the last time I went to a hospital for medical care before China.  And all this does not even account for the language barrier.

In reality, medical care in Shenzhen is fairly straightforward. Social insurance only covers you if you are admitted to the hospital, but medical care is cheaper anyway. So far, I have made two visits to the respiratory doctor, received a chest x-ray, and was prescribed seven different medicines to take over 11 days, and even through all that, I’ve only paid about 900RMB (~$130.00USD). And that’s with a stubborn case of pneumonia. The costs can add up, but for common sicknesses you will likely not have to worry about the money.

After asking other foreigners who have been in Shenzhen a while, I chose to go to Hong Kong University Hospital in Shenzhen to receive my healthcare. I also recommend this hospital, as it is modern, easy to navigate, and is relatively central within Shenzhen. It is located outside of Exit D1 of Shenzhen Bay Park station, on Line 9 of the metro. (And it’s pretty—the hospital is interesting to walk around, and there’s a really beautiful oceanside park just across the highway if you are feeling well enough for a walk!)

You can either ask your contact teacher or your case handler to help you schedule an appointment. Have them send you a confirmation of the appointment for when you check in.

This hospital has it all, but for most things you will go to the central building. When you enter from the main entrance, there will be a couple lines on your left, where you will go to check in and pay for the visit. My visits were 100RMB each, but this cost may vary depending on what type of doctor you are seeing. The signs all have well-translated English, and most employees speak at least some English too, so it should not be too hard to find your way.

At the department you go to, there will be a ticketing system, where patients are called up in order of their check-in. A nurse at the front desk can help you, but there is a screen which shows the numbers that will be called next, so you can monitor about how long you have to wait there. I would recommend getting there 30-45 minutes ahead of your appointment, if not earlier. If you get there too close to your appointment, the line may be backed up thanks to patients who have to go elsewhere in the hospital (to get a chest x-ray, for example) and return. One of my two visits had me wait about 30 minutes past my appointment time.

When you are called, you will be sent to a room number to see the doctor. I had prepared a bunch of Chinese translations to describe my troubles, but the doctor spoke more than enough English that I did not need to use them at all. I imagine this will be the case with most departments. If you need a prescription, x-ray, or any other procedure, you will go back to the lines where you checked in to pay before you can receive that service.

If you receive a prescription, you will pick it up from the same building, just opposite the registration lines (on the right when you enter the building from the main entrance). If there is no employee to help you check in, there are machines for you to input your prescription code. You will be assigned a pickup window. Wait a few minutes, check in with the employee at the window, and if they don’t have your medicine ready, they will tell you how long to wait.

It’s really that simple. Everything you need can be done within the same building. While I don’t have experience with other hospitals around Shenzhen, I imagine many hospitals are similarly modern and streamlined, even if wait times can build up some days. I had worked up the potential problems with visiting a hospital so much in my head, only to realize how easy it actually was when I went. If you are feeling unwell, do not hesitate to go see a doctor! My pneumonia is gone, and my lungs thank me for not waiting any longer.

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