Unlike other developed countries, China doesn’t really have small general practitioner clinics that you would visit for a minor illness or a physical checkup. While there are special clinics designated for physical checkups when you need to renew your visa, they aren’t the kind of place you would go to when you have a cold; they are strictly for visa health checkups. When you need to do anything health related in China, you will most like visit a hospital. However, what are hospitals like in China?

First of all, there are several different types of hospitals in China. There are public, private, and specialized hospitals. There are also 3 Grades (based on how big the hospital is) and 10 levels (based on the level of services/equipment available). Many public Chinese hospitals are a bit overwhelming to visit for foreigners. No one speaks English and the whole process is different than other countries. In China, you don’t call ahead to make an appointment. You simply go to the hospital, get a little booklet which has your info in it, and then make your way to the various different departments yourself. For example, if you have a cold, you might need to go find the room of the doctor who is a general practitioner, and then find the X-ray room if he thinks you have a lung infection, and then later make your way to the pharmacy to pick up your medicine. You don’t stay in one room and have the doctor come to you, you go to them. Then you take your booklet, which your doctor has filled out according to what services they’ve provided, and wait in line to pay and you’re done!

Although it’s confusing and you might not be able to ask all the questions you want to ask if you can’t speak Chinese, the Chinese hospitals are usually quite reasonable. However, it’s important to note before you perform a major surgery in China, you will be required to pay the full amount upfront. Also, another thing you might not be used to is that several other patients might be in the room with you. So while you’re asking the doctor about your problem or while he’s checking out your problem (if you don’t need to undress), the other patients waiting in line behind you to be seen by that doctor may be listening or watching. This can be a little uncomfortable if you’re a shy person.

If you’d like to see a foreign doctor or a Chinese doctor who can speak English and have an appointment that is more like what you would have back home, you’ll want to visit an international hospital. Most major cities in China such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc. all have 3-4 different international hospitals or clinics where English is the primary language. However, it’s important to note that the doctor consultation fee at these places will be at least 1,000rmb (USD$150) or more plus any services required such as blood tests, x-rays, ultrasounds, etc. will all be much more expensive than they would be at a regular Chinese hospital. Usually if they have a good insurance plan, most foreigners will choose the international hospitals and their insurance company will foot the hefty bill.  If you don’t have insurance, some places offer memberships which may help you save up to 20% on certain services.

The specialty Chinese hospitals will be where you want to go if you have a specific problem, such as colon cancer or a brain tumor. Perhaps, you’re just having a baby; there are hospitals that specialize in mother/child care. Just like in any country, you can research which speciality hospital in China is the best for your specific problem, but you will need to speak a high level of Chinese to have the best outcome.

There are also TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) clinics in most Chinese cities, but you’d definitely need a translator to go there with you. You can always smell them a mile away as they are stocked full of many different kinds of dried herbs. This type of place would be good to go to if you want to try acupuncture or other alternative methods of healing.

Last but not least, check your expectations at the door and be patient to have the best experience! Going to the hospital in any foreign country can be a bit scary, but after trying out a few different places, getting recommendations from friends, or going with someone you trust, you’ll soon get over that fear.