How to Deal with a Problem Down There: Dealing with Healthcare in China
Okay girls, let’s face it, having health problems abroad can be a nightmare…especially if it’s, you know…down there. What a drag! So what’s going through your head–aside from the panic of possibly having to see the gynecologist again? Maybe you don’t speak the language! You don’t want to go into a strange environment by yourself (if you’re traveling alone)! You don’t know the medical system! Where should you go? Will your insurance cover it? Will they have the medicine you need?
In an attempt to keep your hysteria at bay, you turn to the trusty (and not so trusty) internet for advice. Google and WebMD come to your rescue and arm you with some highly possible solutions along with added anxiety about what could be wrong. Not sure if you’re now better off, you head to the clinic, and the adventure begins.
Of course this unease comes with most kinds of health problems abroad, but female issues are especially troubling. I was an English teacher in Tianjin, China when this scenario reared its ugly head into my life, and unfortunately the outcome was less than ideal. I made all the rookie mistakes of an uninformed and scared foreigner plus some.
In pain, concerned, and completely infuriated, I paid and stormed out vowing I would never go back unless I was on my death bed.
To begin with, I ignored my symptoms…for five days! My situation worsened and when I finally realized I couldn’t put off taking care of my issue any longer, I went to the doctor’s office in a tizzy of pain and concern. I took a co-worker with me to help with translation but because she was a Taiwanese citizen and not a Tianjin native, she too was unfamiliar with the healthcare in China. Unbeknownst to us, this particular hospital was famous for prescribing unnecessary treatments as a way of nicking extra bucks. I was saddled with three hours of “tests,” which led to a less than satisfying diagnosis of, “it could be an allergic reaction to something” or a “sex disease.” Gee, I thought, that rules out a lot! I was then given some blanket antibiotics, cream, sterile water, Chinese medicinal pills to take six times a day, and an enormous medical bill.
I was so shocked at the cost I asked to see an itemized receipt but was rudely shooed toward the cashiers and told I wasn’t allowed to leave until I paid my bill. In pain, concerned, and completely infuriated, I paid and stormed out vowing I would never go back unless I was on my death bed.
When I returned to the USA six months later with all of my symptoms long gone, I was checked out by my regular physician who assured me it was not an STD, but since I was all better, he was unable to give me more details. It also turned out that my insurance only covered accidental medical visits while abroad (i.e. broken arm or scooter accident) and therefore I wouldn’t be compensated.
What did I learn from this? It’s very important to take preemptive health measures before setting out on your travels: Before leaving home, call your insurance company and find out what its travel coverage is. Many companies, like mine, only reimburse for accident-related incidents and very, very few will pay up front. So it’s a good idea to carry some extra money with you. Service received, payment received.
Carry over-the-counter medications for UTIs and yeast infections just in case, and if all else fails and you still find yourself in a sticky spot, don’t panic! This is your vacation, or, in any case, it’s your life and this stuff happens.
Communicate your needs to the best of your abilities, and don’t feel pressured into treatment.
Next assess your situation: Can it wait until you return home? Is it getting worse? Do you know your travel destination well? If not, do you know people who do?
Once these questions have been answered, educate yourself. Go online (if possible) and take a local with you (if possible). Communicate your needs to the best of your abilities, and don’t feel pressured into treatment. If you don’t like a hospital, go to a different one. If you don’t like a suggested procedure, kindly decline. If, like me, you’re uneasy about taking a medicine because you can’t read its name, ask someone or your chosen search engine to translate it. You can even try to contact your doctor back home for peace of mind.
Lastly, be aware. Things are done differently in other countries. Different is not necessarily wrong, but confusion can make an uncomfortable situation seem unbearable. Be kind to the staff and be open to the suggested treatments, but always keep your wits about you too. It is all a learning and living experience.
Safe and happy travels!