Life In China: Seven Medical Pet Peeves

When I first visited China back in 2012, I had no clue about the Chinese medical system, how to see a doctor, how to arrange a ospital stay, etc. I’d read some articles about the Chinese medical system being an absolute nightmare and after seeing pictures of overcrowded hospital halls, I decided there and then that I never wanted to see a Chinese hospital from the inside.

That changed in 2013, on my second visit to China. I’d flown over to China to spend the spring festival with my now ex-fiancé and the whole family was spending a few days in Tianmen, a small city in Hubei, a couple hundred kilometres from Wuhan, the capital. One morning I woke up with a very sore throat, a headache that nearly killed me, a high fever that made me both sweat and feel chilly at the same time and of course aches and pains all over. I had no appetite, managed all but a spoonful of the chicken soup my mother-in-law had warmed up especially for me and with a pained croak I rejected the steamed bun my aunt, or Jiuma, tried to force on me. My father-in-law immediately ran to the nearby pharmacy to get me some medication and everyone fussed over me, trying to persuade me to go to the hospital to get an IV infusion. I told them over my dead body would I get an IV infusion for a pesky little cold and continued to feel miserable. My ex-fiancé was pretty patient but at some point, he lost it and told me in no uncertain terms that I was being ridiculous and asked me why I kept refusing to see a doctor. I frowned and pouted at him, then forced myself to eat two spoonfuls of rice for lunch but my sore throat made it nearly impossible to swallow anything so I gave up on lunch alltogether.

It was shortly after that, that I finally relented and within minutes we were on the way to the hospital. One of my ex-fiancé’s relatives worked at the hospital as a doctor and in next to no time I was sitting in her office, waiting for the IV infusion to run its course. In the meantime, my family-in-law pampered me, applauded me for finally seeing the light and after the IV was through I was even allowed to eat inside my ex-fiancé car. He bought me Chinese-style pizza called guokui and looked after me for the rest of the afternoon and evening. That one trip hadn’t taught me anything about seeing a doctor in China, but it did cure my pesky chest infection.

My second encounter with a Chinese hospital came in early 2014, a few months after I’d moved to China, when I came down with the flu and needed an infusion to kill a seriously high fever. That evening I was in the company of two friends and way too feverish to realise what was going on around me. My friends arranged for everything, dragged me from the doctor’s office to the laboratory for a blood test, then to the infusion room for an intravenous injection. Due to the high fever, my memory is somewhat foggy with regards to that night and following that late-night visit to the A&E department still didn’t know anything concrete about getting medical treatment in China.

Little did I know that just over four weeks later, I would badly burn the front and back of my left high and therefore have the opportunity to get intimately acquainted with Chinese hospital procedures, registering, paying, getting medication, changing dressings, even a hospital stay and finally surgery. In the short space of three months I became so intimately acquainted with the insand outs of Chinese hospitals that I quickly changed my mind about the horror stories I’d read about in the past. Throughout my treatment, my hospital stay, and my post-surgery recovery I only got the best care. The nurses were lovely, patient, kind and oh so sweet and the doctors did their best to keep up my spirits, were patient, extraordinarily friendly and humorous. The doctor-in-charge of my case went out of his way to look after me, care for me and aid my recovery.

The day I left the hospital, I had made up my mind that Chinese hospitals, while fundamentally different from what I’d experienced in the West, provided their patients with excellent care and support. To my surprise many people found my high praise unbelievable and some even went as far as telling me that I was getting special treatment because of my skin colour. I found that not only upsetting but also hurtful because throughout my care I got the same treatment any other patient did, but I always made sure to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and I could feel that me being polite went a long way.

Since that fateful day that I scalded myself so badly, I made many friends at the hospital I was treated at, and as a result there is only one hospital I will go to when I need medical advice. Despite knowing so many doctors and nurses at the hospital I’ve never used my friends as an excuse to get special treatment. They know they’re my friends and I’ve no intension of using our friendship as ‘guanxi’ for better, faster or cheaper treatment. I get excellent treatment as it is and I get seriously annoyed when people say it’s because I’ve friends in high places. It’s a disgusting thing to say and quite frankyl it says a lot about a person’s character.

While I’m blessed with getting excellent medical advice and all the help I need and could want, I have some minor pet peeves that drive me up the wall and because making lists is therapeutic, here’s my list of things that give me aheadache.

1. You Want To See A Specialist? No Problem, Just Register!
I firmly believe that most Chinese people have no idea just how lucky they are when it comes to seeing a specialist. Since China doesn’t have family doctors / general practitioners with their own private practice everyone heads to the hospital to see a doctor, so if you want to see a specialist, all you have to do is check when said specialist has his / her outpatient clinic hours and then register to see that particular doctor. In some cases, in very big hospital or in the case of a very famous doctor, you might have to get up quite early to register, but that’s about the only trouble you have. In most western countries, you will have to first obtain a referral letter from your GP, then make an appointment with the specialist your GP decides to refer you to (Yes, your GP picks rhe specialist, not you!), and finally you need to wait for your appointment. If your health insurance pays for the specialist consultation you could end up waiting quite some time, unless of course it’s an emergency, in which case your GP will refer you straight to the A&E department. If you’re a private patient and you pay out of your own pocket, you might get an appointment earlier than other patients but that’s about the only benefit you’ll get. In China? Health insurance or no health insurance, you can get an appointment with a specialist anytime you wish. You mightn’t be able to afford his / her proposed course of treatment but anyone ,from farmer to CEO has equal access to the best doctors, providing you pay the registration fee.

2. There’s A Queue Here, Mate! – Queue, What Queue?
When it comes to queuing, China still has a lot to learn. I’ve yet to see a straight line of people, patiently waiting their turn. It’s mostly a messy heap of people without a clear end or start. People frequently try to jump queues and when you call them out on their behaviour they always have some sort of reason or excuse, like it’s an emergency or they just want to register for a different doctor, or, or, or… I’ve heard them all. In the event of a real emergency doctors won’t wait for the family member to register the patient before they administer CPR or inject life-saving drugs. They have a code of ethics and they will to their very best to safe a patient’s life.

Thankfully many hospitals now offer registering online and you can also pay online. Once that’s done, you just show up at the hospital, find one of the electronic machines, scan a QR code and get your registration slip. If you can’t or don’t want to register online, you can still legally skip the queue by using one ofthe automated registration machines. In some cases, these are also able to print out lab test results so you don’t need to queue for those either. It is therefore my humble opinion that Chinese hospitals, at least the big ones, try their very best to reduce waiting times and increase patient satisfaction.

3. Privacy? What Privacy?
Now this is a major pet peeve of mine and it regularly drives me up the wall. I have no problem with giving the doctor all sorts of personal information but I have a serious issue with anyone who isn’t a medical student or nurse listening in on said conversation. The lack of doctor-patient-privacy in Chinese hospitals is a stonishing. Patients who return with test results or who are waiting to be seen simply barge into to the examination room, regardless of whether the doctor is with a patient or not. More often than not I’ve had to politely ask a patient to leave the room so I could speak to the doctor in private. My medical history is between the doctor and me and a third party has no issue barging in there. This lack of respect when it comes to a fellow patient’s privacy is a big issue and while most doctors will kindly tell other patients to wait outside when you request it, I believe that people should have the common sense to simply give others that little bit of privacy, instead of having to be asked to give it.

4. I Don’t Want That Treatment, I Want An Injection!
I speak from personal experience when I say that most patients and their family members lack basic knowledge of medical problems and it’s regularly causing problems for doctors and nurses alike. Patients seem check their symptoms on Baidu before coming to the hospital and request treatments that are utterly unsuitable and when the doctor wisely refuses they get frustrated, angry and lash out, sometimes using brute force, sometimes yelling loud enough to wake a coma patient. In China, every sneeze and every cough is a common cold, a basic understanding of the difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection doesn’t exist (
I won’t even get into the whole washing your hands with water and soap after going to the toilet issue!) and getting someone to understand that they don’t need medicine, and certainly don’t need an intravenous infusion, mostly ends with the patient losing it and calling the doctor an incapable imbecile when the imbecile is infact the patient himself, not the man or woman in the white coat.

5. What Do You Mean By I’m Allergic To This Medication?
Most medications require an allergy test, especially when said medications are to be administered via an IV drip, however most patients seem to lack the basic understanding of why the hospitals have such a strict policy when it comes to these allergy tests or if they are aware of the reasons for the allergy test, they still moan about it. These allergy tests are in place to ensure that unsuitable medication isn’t administered to a patient. This would cause irreparable damage to both the patient and the hospital, leaving the hospital liable to excruciatingly high compensation payments. No respectable hospital and / or doctor would ever administer any kind of medication without ensuring the safety of all parties concerned. Therefore, what people really need to understand is that these safety measures aren’t in place to hold up the patient but to protect them.

6. Hygiene!
I will get into the whole hygiene issue after all. Unfortunately, most people in China will not wash their hands after a visit to the bathroom, not even when soap is provided and if they do wash their hands they briefly splash one hand, presumably the one they used to wipe themselves clean, with some water, then leave to go about their own business. Minutes later they touch their phone, someone else’s face, an elevator button or they shake hands with you. The thought of those germs and the possible diseases associated with them, makes me want to vomit. I cannot comprehend why people just won’t wash their hands probably, why they won’t use soap, even if it’s provided, and why they think it’s okay to do so, especially in a hospital. Every time I see people not wash their hands, I want to point out to them what dirty pigs they are and ask them if they are always this disgustingly filthy. I’ve been brought up to wash my hands before a meal and after, after going to the toilet, taking out the rubbish, cleaning the dishes and before starting to cook. There is no acceptable excuse for not washing your hands and these hygiene issues literally drive me insane. I’ve stopped shaking people’s hands and even when people want to shake my hand, I balk and point-blank refuse. Finally, let’s not even talk about the eating habits of patients and their family members while in the hospital…

7. The Noise!!!
Chinese hospitals aren’t exactly the place you’d go to if you wanted to enjoy a little bit of peace and quiet, which is quite a pity as it makes getting a rest almost impossible. Someone is always shouting, loudly listening to music without headphones, watching a TV-show or movie or playing a game. Some patients are accompanied by an entire hoard of friends and/or family and they will chat and laugh without any regard for the other patients around. Western hospitals on the other hand are mostly quiet places and the only place you’re likely to find chaos and unceasing noise is the A&E department. All other places are usually quiet and if you raise your voice the nurses are quick to silence you with murderous looks that will scare the bejesus out of you.

In my humble opinion, most of these problems are the reason why the relationship between doctors and patients is so strained in China. There is simply a lack of common sense, lack of interest in basic communal manners and also a lack of education. All these issues could be solved if the majority of people cared a little more about each other rather than just their own benefits and as for those who are aware of the correct behaviour, they really shouldn’t be afraid to teach others, to educate, to inform, to spread knowledge. Sure, some people might take offence at getting told off by others, but in the long run it will do more good than bad. I also firmly believe that these small changes in behaviour would greatly improve doctor/patient relationships. It wouldn’t solve all problems, after all black sheep can be found just about anywhere, but it would make some things so much better.