My First Experience with Chinese Healthcare

“Where’s my kidney!?” is not something you expect to be asking a doctor as you lay in a strange hospital, in a strange city, in a strange language.

And yet there I was frantically using my online dictionary to make sure, in fact, it was my kidney that was missing and not a gallbladder or tricep that went MIA.

Getting a Health Check in China for your Job

If you wish to work in the Middle Kingdom as a laowai, you will need to get a physical. I’m sure this isn’t too different from most countries’ policies, but this is the one I’m familiar with.

When I was still living in Chicago, the company I was going to work with in China told me I needed to get a health check in my home country, but not using a standard physical form. I needed to use the Chinese governmental one. I already had a physical that year from my doctor in my hometown, Springfield, Mass.

Unfortunately, the Chinese form asked for things more specific I didn’t know with certainty: blood type, x-ray on my lungs, affirmation of a syphilis-free applicant. You know, standard stuff.

So I had to either fund another physical, or have my Chicago and Springfield doctors coordinate. However, my hometown doctor couldn’t verify certain things because I was not there in person. I relayed this information to my Chinese company’s HR department.

They told me that my doctor could forge the document. I then relayed that info to my doctor, to which he responded in politer, more respectful terms: “go fuck yourself.”

So, I essentially forged a health form myself, which I then brought to China with me. When I got there, they told me it was all nonsense, I didn’t need to get one in the US anyway and I’d be getting one there. Morality be gone.

The night before we were supposed to get it done, our foreign affairs department told us that we were giving blood and urine for tests, and that we weren’t supposed to eat after about 8pm.

They never said anything about drinking until 2 in the morning. Which we did.

When we woke up at 6am in the morning, dazed and confused, we hopped on a bus to the hospital, which was a cool 30 minutes away and the day a balmy 90 degrees with 100% humidity.

As this is a physical I’m detailing, I’ll go about it as a list.

The Medical Checkup was not Kosher

Urine test: Go into a gross squatty potty, pee in a cup, pour that cup without a funnel into an unsealed tube with a number on it and then place that one in a holster with about 100 other uncapped piss vials. No chance you can sabotage that test. Fool proof.

Blood work: I looked next to me as the doctors treated my buddy’s forearm like a naughty pincushion and a sizeable pool of blood formed in the well at the base of his bicep. Plumbing has a narrower gauge than his veins, so I’m not sure how they missed those puppies.

X-Ray: Oh boy, this is where they shine in safety. I needed the aforementioned lung x-ray, and so they step you up like a freak at a carnival. The lead shield lay on the table next to me as he lined up the gamma-ray blaster. “Umm, shouldn’t I use that protection?” I inquired, as he walked away flummoxed as to why I would want something that could defend against cancer. I sensed a feint smile as he bombarded my vital organs with radiation. There’s a solid year off my life.

EKG: I needed this vital test done to prove with near certainty that I could teach English to stupid children. As I walked in the room, a doctor behind a slightly-but-not-completely curtained off area waved me over. I entered to find a patient juuust about getting his shirt on and the last electrode being ripped off his sweaty flesh. The doctor motioned for me to lie down on the table, where she applied used stickies directly on my skin. The number of patients who touched the same ones is disgusting, mind-blowing. While we were waiting in line, I saw a hairy, fat dude come out the room. Fortunately, the idea that I shared adhesive with him hit me only after I left the hospital.

Further, I had to completely take off my shirt. I was curious as to what the girls had to do, assuming they were just shirtless as the tiny nurse reused electrodes on them. So I sorta asked and the girls in our group confirmed. Just behind that little curtain, where if a person waiting next in line took two steps to the right could peer in, were girls in bras. None of that would fly back home.

Ultrasound: This probably yielded the most useful information I’ve ever received. At the time I received my first health check in China, my language ability was above average compared to most foreigners in the country, but well south of functionally literate. I got the basics, but needed help filling in the blanks.

As I got in the room, I realized quickly they didn’t wash any equipment. They gooped up the machine, poked around your abdomen, wiped it off and called in the next person. They were surprisingly quick. I took off my shirt, hopped on the table, and she asked her first question. “Did you drink too much water this morning?” Okay, next question.

After ten seconds, she mumbled haode. Good. Fanshen. Turn over.

After about 30 seconds, a minute, an hour it seemed, she asked her second question. Where is your _____? I leave that blank because I didn’t understand the word. I understood “where is my” and I gleaned the general meaning.

I frantically checked my online dictionary, realized 肾 means kidney, realized I had a right one and realized, oh boy, I don’t have a left kidney.

Takeaway from Chinese Hospitals

Because I worked in China for two years, I ended up getting several health checks for various reasons. All four times, the doctor asked where my left kidney was. I didn’t bring it up; I wanted to see if they’d find out on their own. And they did.

When I told my friends back home, not one believed me. They all assumed there was a mistake, and that only American doctors were to be trusted. They couldn’t fathom that four independent doctors, trained in technology developed in the 1940s, at huge urban hospitals could possibly interpret an ultrasound correctly.

Sure enough, when I returned to the US, I got a fifth test to determine with 100% certainty I was missing a left kidney. Otherwise, how would I have found out?

While some of these anecdotes do highlight shortcomings in Chinese hospitals, I will say, by and large, healthcare there has worked pretty decently.

I once had a bad stomach pain. Bad. Really bad. So I went to the ER, saw a doctor, who sent me to get a CT scan, and give blood and urine tests, saw another doctor, who read the results, and then waited for a third party to read the results. I had insurance, but basically it was applicable in only the most extreme situations. So I paid completely out of pocket. It was about $70 in total, and I got all the meds and help I needed. Not bad.

Those iffy experiences definitely should be remedied as Chinese hospitals advance. They are funny in hindsight (except the whole radiation exposure, thing). However, in the end, they did identify my blood type, ascertained which kidney I was missing and confirmed I don’t have syphilis. How bad can Chinese healthcare be?

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Have you also been to a Chinese hospital? had similar experiences? had good experiences?

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!

(Lastly, the featured image for this article isn’t a hospital at all. It’s a library; I couldn’t find my picture of the hospital. Bet you didn’t notice!)


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