Doctors and hospitals
As with almost everything in Beijing, there is a wide range of options available. At the high end of the price range are private international clinics like Beijing United Family Hospital.
Top public Chinese hospitals also offer excellent care and often have VIP wings. Language may be a barrier there, at least with nursing staff.
At the low end, neighborhood doctors may operate out of what seems to be their living quarters and have minimal medical equipment available.
Visiting an international hospital in Beijing
I’ll share a bit more info on Beijing United (BUFH) because that is the healthcare facility in Beijing that I am most familiar with. Most taxi drivers know it by its Chinese name Hé mù jiā yī yuan 和睦家医院. The main facility is in the Lido area, satellite clinics are in other parts of town frequented by expats (check out the BUFH website for specific locations).
Doctors and nurses at BUFH all speak English very well and many have trained abroad. It is fairly easy to get an appointment within a few days. For more urgent issues and if no appointment with a family doctor is available, BUFH has an efficient urgent care. Overall, there is usually very little wait time involved.
At the end of your visit, you have to go to the check-out to settle the bill. BUFH offers direct billing with many insurance companies. For that you don’t have to pay anything yourself, just show your insurance card and passport at the checkout and sign the paperwork. BUFH also has a pharmacy on site.
Visiting a Chinese hospital
I do not have first hand experience myself with visiting a Chinese hospital but a friend of mine, also a foreigner, does. She sought medical care for herself and also accompanied a Chinese friend to multiple hospital visits to get an array of tests over the course of a few weeks.
In Chinese hospitals, you need to be able to speak Chinese, or bring a friend who speaks Chinese and who can translate medical issues for you. You will spend a lot of time waiting in line, usually first to see a doctor, then to pay for an ordered test, then again to wait for the test, see the doctor again, maybe get another test, …
I also found a blog post that describes a visit to a Chinese hospital, very similar to my friend’s experience. Check it out at Antoinette Saletta’s blog).
Western medication and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Many Chinese use and hospitals offer both Western and Traditional Chinese medicine. TCM has a long history and embraces a holistic approach. We have used TCM to treat cold symptoms and other minor aches.
Western medicine in China may be different from what you are used to. Don’t expect the typical neighborhood pharmacy to sell Advil or have typical Western medications like blood pressure meds that would be standard in the US. For those, you may have to go to an international clinic/pharmacy.
Health insurance in China
The two main options for health insurance for foreigners in China are getting insurance through your employer or buying insurance yourself. If your employer offers insurance, make sure you understand what is covered, both inside and outside of China. If you are not comfortable with the coverage, you may want to look into buying additional insurance yourself.
For buying your own insurance, the Internet is a good starting point to learn about options and providers. But be sure to look for reputable insurance companies with good ratings and read all the fine print! Also pay attention if the policy renews automatically, or if the insurance company can deny coverage or increase the premium if you had any medical event in the prior period.
You should also think about your insurance in your home country. Will/can you continue your current policy? Should you? Will it be easy to get back into the policy when you come back? Is there any paperwork you may need, like a certificate of prior coverage to prove you had insurance while in China? I know this topic is more complicated for Americans than for people from countries with universal healthcare systems. “Obamacare”, the US healthcare reform that hopefully takes effect as planned, should make it easier in the coming years.
Going without insurance
I know some students and other folks on a tight budget consider this option because going to a doctor in China can be very cheap (from a Western perspective). So this may be a viable option for minor maladies.
Consider buying insurance for more serious issues. Plans with a higher deductible are not expensive and give you the option to go to an international clinic if you have to deal with an unexpected serious health issue.