Healthcare in China is a significant point of contention for many expats. Treatment is available in public hospitals, international clinics within them or at private facilities that cater to expats. The Chinese healthcare system is hospital-centred, so expats often forego the search for a general practitioner.

As can be expected from such a vast country, the quality of care, the ease of access and the associated costs vary tremendously between different places and institutions. Most expats in China do, however, take out private health insurance and seek treatment at private facilities.

Public healthcare in China

China's public healthcare system is best described as inconsistent. Many cities have direct access to hospitals and a range of medical services, whereas rural areas can be hours away from the nearest clinic.

In general, however, China’s public healthcare system is considered substandard. While this may not be the case with every facility, the language barrier, slow service and long queues dissuade most Westerners from seeking treatment in a public hospital. Once expats overcome these inconveniences, the quality of treatment itself is in many cases decent, even if the methods used by doctors are different.

International wings in public hospitals

In an attempt to bridge the gap between the quality of care at costly private hospitals and the poor service at public facilities, some public clinics have opened international wings. These exist as partnerships between the state and the private sector, and aim to provide access to public healthcare with Western standards of healthcare.

Many of these share doctors with public facilities, but don't have the long waiting times. International wings also have a greater focus on customer care, are more likely to have English-speaking staff, and are able to offer treatments at a lower cost than private hospitals. International wings are a relatively new phenomenon, and are only found in China's largest commercial centres.

Private healthcare in China

International hospitals are well represented in larger cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but will be absent in most smaller cities and rural communities. While these private facilities often have English-speaking medical staff with Western training, the high standards and service-orientated treatment come at a high price, though.

Health insurance in China

Though 95 percent of the Chinese population has at least basic health insurance, coverage isn't as comprehensive as perhaps expected. Public health insurance, for instance, generally only covers half of the medical bills. Premiums also tend to be high, even for the most basic insurance plans.

It's therefore essential for expats to negotiate private health insurance as part of their employment package. If this isn't possible, they may want to consider opening a policy on their own. Expats should ensure their hospital of choice recognises the insurance policy they hold.

Medication and pharmacies in China

Expats in Chinese cities will have access to the kinds of prescription medicines they're used to, as well as a range of traditional Chinese medicines. Some pharmacists have expertise in both areas, and those that do make for a valuable resource.

Prescription regulations vary between countries, so if there's any medication an expat takes regularly, they should do some research to find out whether it can be bought over the counter in China or if a prescription is required.

Pharmacies are widely available in urban areas and are conveniently organised into different departments. Most labels are in Chinese, so some assistance from a local friend, colleague or bilingual pharmacist may be necessary.

Health hazards in China

Pollution is a concern in many Chinese cities, and may be an issue for any expats with pre-existing respiratory problems. Expats living in urban areas should make an effort to exercise regularly and use an air purifier at night.

The safety of drinking water in China is another health concern. It's best to avoid drinking tap water and rather consume bottled water.

Different areas pose varying health risks. Regions with higher altitudes, such as Qinghai Province, could cause altitude sickness. It's advised to follow instructions from the Chinese authorities regarding any health alerts.

Emergency services in China

Emergency services in China are provided by the state’s emergency medical services. These are widespread and efficient in urban areas, but are less reliable or absent in rural regions. Ambulances often have a physician on board, but it's best to look out for and avoid so-called 'black ambulances' – unlicensed, private ambulances that could charge you a fortune.

  • 120 – Ambulance services

  • 119 – Fire department

  • 110 – Public Security Bureau

Expat Health Insurance

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