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China Hospitals: Avoid at ALL Costs

China hospitals

David Dayton of Silk Road International has a fascinating, though disquieting post, entitled, Another Trip to the Healthy Department. Dayton’s father was a doctor and Dayton tells us (in vivid detail) why he thinks it better to never ever ever go to a hospital in China, which hospitals he describes (based on a far amount of international experience) as the worst he has ever seen.

For what it is worth, I have been to hospitals in Yantai, China, in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia, Izmir, Turkey, and just about EVERY emergency room in Seattle, Washington and I would rank them in the following order of best to worst, in terms of cleanliness:

  1. Seattle
  2. Izmir
  3. Yuzhno
  4. Dubrovnik
  5. Yantai

But what do I know? My father was an English professor.

Would love to hear your China/international hospital stories…..

20 responses to “China Hospitals: Avoid at ALL Costs”

  1. I have some real beauts, from a Qinghai countryside clinic where, thank the universe of stars, I was not the patient, to the Peking Union Medical College Hospital where several times I was, and which is a place I will never set a foot back into. Without getting too graphic, I literally almost didn’t come out of there alive. I had the “#1 heart doctor” who tried his damndest to kill me, and when I was nearly dead, he washed his hands of me and told me to head to see his classmate, who was an administrator in Tanggu. My only guess was that his bud had more experience filling out paperwork for dead foreigners. I ended up in Thailand where the doc was superb, but where the staff did their best to finish me off. Happy to be here!

  2. Our hospital here in Xinjiang is absolutely horrid to the point that if there’s ever a real emergency, even the locals will drive 4 hours to Urumqi to get a real doctor.
    I brought my wife in once when she complained to me about severe stomach pains. The doctor, while examining her, literally punched her in the stomach with his fist and asked her “Does it hurt here?” As if that wasn’t enough to get me mad he actually ended his check-up right there when she obviously said “yes” and wrote her a prescription. We haven’t been back since.

  3. I am very lucky. I have had good experiences with the hospitals here in Guangzhou. The worst thing I have seen is medial staff being indifferent.
    My experiences in northern China have been different. Peking Union was a nightmare and hospitals in Shenyang seem to be rancid slaughterhouses.
    What is the deal with reports about fake medicine? Unless you are being treated at a clinic in the sticks or a private hospital the chance of encountering fake medicine seems pretty low.

  4. Personally, I’ve never had any trouble here. In Beijing I recommend Chaoyang Hospital, the skin department of the Airforce General Hospital, and, uh, 北医三院. And a colleague in Taiyuan was well taken care of at- so far as I can remember- 山医二元. My apologies for the Chinese names- they’re half remembered and therefore not easily translated. Also, I have no major complaints about the treatment I received at either the Zhangshanying Township hospital in Yanqing County, Beijing, or the local clinic I visited in the Heishijiao area of Dalian- both could’ve been a bit stricter about finding out exactly what ailed me, but both fixed me up good.
    However, I have met and worked with people with genuine horror stories to tell about their hospital visits in China. Most of such stories come from my year in Changsha, in which one of my colleagues was good at getting herself in need of medical treatment. I remember one trip in which she came back talking of blood-stained bedsheets and doctors smoking in front of the patients. I have yet to personally witness such a situation, and I have no reason to complain about the treatment I or any other colleague or friend (barring, of course, that one in Changsha) received in any Chinese hospital.

  5. My own experience is that Westerners can be terribly unrealistic and high maintenance re their expectations of what a hospital “should” be, especially for an emerging market or country.
    But perhaps in my view in this regard I am an outlier — I grew up in a part of the USA where folks tend to put up with pain, find a reason NOT to go to the doctor because they loathe being the subject of such special attention, and/or, when hurt they just wash out the wound with soap and water and sew themselves up. Not kidding.

  6. Two trips to the ER in China is the reason I no longer live there. In both cases I was fortunate enough to have SOS International coverage. SOS sent a Dr. to me and then transported me to HK where I received better care than I can get here in the U.S.
    My normally mild mannered wife once chased away a team of five Dermatologists who were amazed that I was all pink and hairy. She finally yelled “He’s Irish! They all look like that!”
    Mr. Dayton hits an important and often overlooked point that health care (and I would add education) are serious barriers to retaining foreign talent in China. By the time I left another multinational had lost 8 of 18 families to health concerns.

  7. I don’t have expat medical coverage and so visit local hospitals when I have any ailment – luckily nothing serious so far – here in Beijing. Lack of professionalism and staff being indifferent are widespread, prescribing unnecessary medicines is a way to make money. Cleanliness is also lacking but they have 1.3 billion people so must be doing something right.
    My Chinese wife is pregnant and has been going to local hospitals. She scours websites for opinions about hospitals and, more importantly, individual doctors as in many cases its the doctor you get that determines what experience you will have.

  8. @Chris
    Since when is basic hygiene an unrealistic expectation? And where are you from in the US? I want to visit the magic fairyland where people sew up their own wounds.

  9. I strongly advise you to go to Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou (when it opens) United Family Hospitals if you have a serious illness in China. For minor stuff I see local doctors, but for something important you should not take the risk.

  10. @ Jeremy Cole:
    I have closed lacerations with superglue and taken out my own stitches, although I don’t believe I’d have the constitution to apply them except in an emergency. Is that magical fairyland territory? I usually take a common sense approach to injuries and illnesses. Many Chinese I have met, on the other hand, seem determined to see a doctor for every wheeze and sniffle; a roommate I had in Harbin once told me to go get an IV when I had a cold. No thanks.
    I did go to a hospital once in Harbin when I had what I thought was strep throat (due to high fever). I can’t remember the name, but the place seemed quite clean. The lack of privacy was astonishing though. Several locals watched from across the room as the doctor poked, prodded and frowned at the sickly laowai in front of him. God forbid I had had something awry below the navel! I got some antibiotics and was out the door within an hour’s time. I was encouraged to purchase Japanese-made penicillin to ensure it was authentic. They also gave me some bear gall pills. I guess they had a twofer on Chinese and western medicine that day. It helped that I spoke Chinese and I wasn’t seriously ill. I feel for anyone who has been seriously sick in rural China.

  11. @Glenn Not quite in magic fairlyland. See the commenter above.
    I have noticed the IV thing. It seems to work well for me. Oddly the people in south China don’t seem to be so eager to start drips. When I was in Shenyang it seemed compulsory for anyone who went to see the doctor.

  12. That kind of behaviour is common in East Asia. I’ve seen it in Korea too: getting IV for a cold, or even just because they feel “weak”. It just fits very well with all the Asian medicine “rebalance your energy” notion.
    The fact is injecting an alien fluid in your veins is potentially dangerous, especially when it is done indiscriminately and without the proper control by a hospital. You get a bag with pyrogenes you can hit 40C in a few minutes and hasta la vista Wang.

  13. @ Chris Carr
    Even in very rural places there is often adequate professional first aid for wounds. Your description sounds like some “Americana” tale of rugged individualism, people getting drunk before major dental surgery and Dana Carvey’s old SNL skits like “in my day we lived with our oozing cavities that gave us blinding pain and prevented us from eating solid food and WE LIKED IT! We didn’t need no fancy yuppie…”.
    Ok, China is developing (or developed depending on the category), but what about the upper tier of medical services available in India or Thailand? People from around the world flock there for western level medical care at cut rate prices and luxury accommodations to boot.

  14. My biggest problem has been not so much with fake medicine, as with underprecribed dosages. I’ve had doctors here prescribe me antibiotics for only a 2 or 3 day course of treatment, at low doses, because “Western medicine is too strong”. Amoxicillin is useless to me now. Now I double check online for appropriate dosage and course of treatment before I take what’s prescribed.

  15. A couple quick comments. First, if you doubt the fact that there are more fake than real medicines you are either believing the white-lies of embarrassed medical staff or are just not asking for the “real” stuff. Staff at any school clinic (if you work there) will tell you their foreign teachers should go elsewhere as the fake meds sold on campus are the only way that students can afford health care. At the “best” two hospitals in SZ we have been offered the choice of real medicine almost every time we have gone. China is the source of most of the fake meds in the world ( and if you think that they are just exporting all the fakes, I have one word for you: melamine.
    I have a MD friend in Taiwan who agrees with the comments here about how much Asians like too get something from their hospital visit. He says that MD fees are so much higher than most other services that patients will get quite angry if they’re told “you’re OK” or “just go home and sleep it off” or something similar. He says MD’s (in Taiwan, but I’m sure it’s the same here) almost ALWAYS will proscribe something even if it’s just saline or glucose or even placebos just to pacify people who are spending money. Add to that the fact that MD’s are paid on commission (cheaper meds proscribed more often equals more take home pay) and you have almost no incentive to give people nothing or the real things.
    With all the money that China spends on infrastructure, the available FDI and the fact (as mentioned above) that Thailand and India can pull off GREAT medical services tells me that the “we’ve a developing country” excuse is just not the real answer.
    I’ll be honest, I think the most damaging thing that has ever happened to China is the fact that the concept of “there are too many people” is so accepted. It devalues life and the need to provide quality health and nutritional services to people in China. It turns people into transactions and puts medical services on a level much lower than having good trains, airports or seaports. Sad really. Foreigners are treated much better than locals.

  16. School clinics rarely see anyone for anything more serious than a cold or scrape. I doubt that the people in such places are pawning fake anti-biotics and cold medication on you. Making knock-offs of medication that costs five to twenty RMB per package seems like a high-risk, low-return proposition. It just would not be worth the trouble.
    Perhaps you are confusing generic drugs produced by Chinese companies with counterfeit medicine. I strongly suspect that the medication offered to you was not fake, but generic. I was taking a very expensive imported medication that I do not wish to name. A doctor offered me a generic Chinese pill that is chemically identical. Whoever was speaking to you probably did not know how to express the idea of “generic.”

  17. Went to one of Kunming’s best hospitals for 1 minor surgery and 1 minor procedure. The doctors were attentive and did their job well, as far as I could tell. What weirded me out was the complete lack of soap in the bathrooms as well as the lack of privacy when you’re explaining your symptoms and getting a preliminary checkup – I guess this is because there are so many people swarming around.

  18. Of course, that caveat: Don’t get sick in China. As if that is ever intended. But in Shanghai, whenever something important is the matter, I visit a foreign hospital staffed by native English-speaking MDs. It costs heaps (10-20% of my monthly teacher’s salary), but the peace of mind has certainly been worth it. Of horror stories, there are an endless list. A complete lack of privacy, very little information, the awful manners, the total lack of sensitivity, the ubiquitous I/V drips, the antibiotic panacea, etc. A Canadian friend recently took his very ill Chinese wife to a supposedly top local hospital, and chose to stay with her overnight. Later, as she was sleeping, he wanted some fresh air and a smoke, and went downstairs to discover the entrance chained — the rent-a-cop was asleep somewhere and nowhere to be alerted. Ugly laowai violence almost ensued. Hospitals everywhere can be dangerous places. (A smart and helpful pharmacist can sometimes be a much better option.) Cheers.

  19. I have been to that Chinese hospital in Yantai! You are right about it, but I also went to one in Shanghai and it was so much nicer.

  20. BE STRONG – I have had extensive experience with hospitals here in dealing with my mother’s care. Here’s my principle, “If you have to go to a hospital in China, better make sure you are strong and healthy.”
    There are of course excellent individual practitioners, but a significant number have gone overseas to pursue further studies and/or are limited in what they can do because of the poor medical infrastructure. That said, a CT scan is dirt cheap here. Everyone should go get an “executive” checkup, then take the scans back overseas for review. Don’t even try to imagine getting a lead apron to cover your privies during x-rays. The extra radiation comes without extra charge.

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