Chinese Hospital Horrors


Anyone who has spent long enough in China will share the  experience of having to visit a hospital at some point.

Visiting the doctor is not enjoyable  in any case; but when faced with a dangerous pairing of local Chinese customs and enthusiasm for Western medicine, dealing with health issues can become a harrowing experience, especially for those among us who have been spoilt by Western standards of treatment in both senses of the word.

A recent Christmas trip to Disneyland in Hong Kong took us straight from the airport to the hospital, as my husband’s eye had swollen to the size of a golf ball. Yes indeed, the hospital. Unlike in Germany, my COB, there is no tradition of general practitioners, family doctors or small private clinics when it comes to Western medicine in modern China. Which means if you face an acute problem such as an eye that looks as though you have been in a bar fight, the main option is to go to a public hospital (or become a pauper in return for excellent service at an international hospital).

Seeing a doctor in China is still ridiculously inexpensive. For around 20RMB in BenQ international hospital in Nanjing and 60RMB in Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, you get to see the “Zhuanjia”, the medical expert. A visit to the less experienced “normal doctor” usually only sets you back a few kuai, or less than one Euro. At one of the international institutions, standards are slightly more European. While you can expect stellar service, you can also look forward to a bill of around 1000RMB per visit.

Upon registering you chose the department you want to visit; paediatrics, cardiology or in our case ophthalmology, and then which type of doctor. After handing over the hospitals individual patient card, which you receive the first time you register with said hospital (I always wonder what if you go to a different hospital each time? You better have a big wallet), you are assigned a number to see your doctor. Once you have located your department, you need to once again swipe your hospital card at the department desk, so your presence is registered by the system. All very organised up until now.

However, once it comes to standing in line to see the doctor, the problems begin. The lack of queuing etiquette has become one of the Chinese most infamous shortcomings, and especially in public hospitals the “everyone for themselves” mentality is heavily pronounced. While you consult with the doctor, between 2 and 10 patients might push into the room to form a resemblance of a queue, listening to the entire exchange between you and the health professional. After all, in a communist and collectivist society with an overpopulation problem, ideas of privacy and personal space differ extremely from our spoilt, individualist opinions.

Next is a trip to the blood sample station, which looks almost like the service section of a bank with up to five counters with glass windows under which you push your arm, while your neighbour faints and falls off their seat because the nurse wasn’t able to locate the vein.

Wait for half an hour to pick up the results from the printer and storm back to the ophthalmology department, where the previously half orderly system has already been chucked overboard and you virtually have to push your way into the room, queueing up behind the patient who is having their eyesight examined.

Antibiotic obsession

Finally, it was out turn. While the blood tests indicated it was an allergic reaction the doctor announced that he would prescribe an IV drip anyway, because according to him it “didn’t really look like an allergic reaction”.

Sadly, this aggressive route of treatment in spite of scientific evidence is nothing out of the ordinary. The history of antibiotics in China is much shorter than in the West, and with its introduction to the Middle Kingdom did not come the important awareness of how to handle this dangerous medication.

As Mr. Li puts it, his was the “generation of antibiotics”. While their parents did not have access and today’s parents and health institution are increasingly informed and aware, during the 1990s Chinese people would take antibiotics like it was regular cold medicine. The colloquial translation of Xiaoyanyao (消炎药) didn’t help either, as this just means “medicine that reduces inflammation” as opposed to the scientific translation of 抗生素.

“We would take 5 or 6 pills at a time, three times a day whenever we got sick. For colds and fever alike. We just didn’t know any better,” he tells me each time the subject comes up. China and the world are now facing the consequences as the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria poses an entirely new threat to our health.

On a personal level, I have been waging my own little war against antibiotics. While I have managed to dial down Mr. Li’s antibiotic use (or abuse depending on your POV), being in China does not help my case.

My exasperated challenging of the doctor’s announcement was met with confusion; the professional clearly couldn’t fathom why anyone would mind an antibiotic transfusion while Mr. Li chanted “It’s my wife who doesn’t like me using antibiotics, I don’t mind, I don’t mind.”

What are you to do? In the end the doctor agreed to also prescribe antihistamines but still insisted on the IV.

What worries me is simply the fact that in the face of scientific evidence, i.e. the blood test, the doctor chose to ignore it to just return to the bog standard Chinese solution of pumping massive amounts of a drug into your body that will kill you with overuse. This overuse has now led the the emergence of antibiotic-resistant super bacteria, posing a very real health threat to our global world.

It makes me feel unsafe about visiting any type of health care practitioner in China. It makes me wonder how I can live in a country where I don’t even dare go to the doctor?

Have you had similar experiences with visiting doctors in China? How do you handle it?

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8 thoughts on “Chinese Hospital Horrors”

  1. So frustrating! I hear you on the antibiotics. Apparently gonorrhea is about to become untreatable thanks to improper use and overuse of antibiotics.

    Some idiot patients here aren’t happy unless they get antibiotics. Honestly, doctors should prescribe placebos and pretend they are antibiotics, especially for a viral infections. 🙂

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  2. Oh wow, this sounds frustrating. It’s really similar in Japan. I went to the doctor about abdominal pain that was making me cry and he sent us to a big hospital, saying they weren’t equipped to treat me, even saying, “Why did you come here?” which annoyed me. However, it only got worse from there. Japanese people are good at staying in line and waiting their turn, but the hospital was really full and I ended up getting 6 different kinds of tests because the doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I was there for hours, and he even laughed at me because he said it was gas pain. I was really stressed back then, so I had a lot of health problems, but that experience taught me not to even bother going to a doctor.

    Now, I’m in Korea and I had some pain and my fiance, who works at lots of hospitals, assured me going to the doctor would be better here. We did go, and the doctor was amazing. I’ve been there twice now already and I feel really well taken care of by him and his staff. The rooms are much more private than in Japan, and it’s a Women’s clinic, so it’s small and less judgmental. I think you are right, though, that many expats living in Asia have probably all experienced a horror story at the doctor. It is much cheaper, but sometimes the care is not what we are used to.

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    1. I can’t believe he laughed at you – that is disgusting – when you’re already feeling vulnerable not to be taken seriously like that! Yes – in nanjing I used to go to BenQ a Taiwanese hospital and they were all very good and prices were good too but in Beijing they don’t seem to have it so the only option is the super expensive sos 😦 and the doctor was actually kind of just guessing in terms of treatment – mr Li was feeling better but since yesterday the eye is swelling up again and I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to do now ;(

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  3. Yup I hear you on the antibiotic thing. My father woke up in excruciating pain about 8 weeks ago and we rushed him to hospital. We were freaking out that it might be appendicitis and were massively antsy at having to wait to be seen. When we finally got to see a doctor who would actually diagnose him, he diagnosed gall stones and prescribed this list of drugs to be administered via drip… I quickly WeChatted the list to one of my Chinese friends who helped me figured out what they were giving him two different types of antibiotics, a strong pain killer and an anti inflammatory… TWO antibiotics?!?!?! I piped up and said that I’m pretty sure that antibiotics weren’t necessary, but Dad was pretty much willing to do ANYTHING to try to get the pain to subside. I couldn’t sit in there with him, surrounded by people with needles in their arms. So I sat outside in the corridor and watched the comings and goings, fascinated at how different it was from hospitals back home in NZ.

    I hope your husband’s eye is feeling better.

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    1. Oh no that’s terrible! Hope your dad is better as well! The problem is even trying to reason often doesn’t get you anywhere does it 😦 hope all is well! Mr li is ok – went to another hospital today that is all the way across town – they gave him another type of eye drops against allergic reactions hrm

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  4. Sounds horrible! I also had to see a doctor when I was on my way to Xiamen, but we would still look for one when we were in Hong Kong. We looked for one who was fluent in English and we found a private one who studied in Europe. I don’t know if I would trust a doctor in China, but I also have trust issues with the doctors here in Austria. 😦

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