Getting Sick in the PRC: What you should know about China’s Healthcare System


This article is brought to us by Cooper, Claridge-Ware, an independent International Health Insurance Brokerage headquartered in Hong Kong, China with more than 55 years of experience in helping expatriates and travellers around the world find the best insurance solutions possible.


China, one of the world’s oldest continual civilizations and the beating heart of Asia’s rise to economic glory, is drawing ever increasing numbers of travellers each year. This jewel of the East boasts one of the more memorable wonders of the ancient world in the form of the Great Wall, set against the backdrop of thriving industrial and commercial production in Beijing and Shanghai.

With all the country can offer, from the majestic and unique peaks of Guilin to the rugged beauty of the Gobi desert, the draw China presents in the modern world is second to no other country on earth; especially for the adventurous traveller seeking a departure from typical European or North American adventures.

However, before departing on your trip to the mix of tradition and modernity epitomized by the People’s Republic of China it is important that you understand your healthcare options in the event of a serious accident, injury, or illness. This is, after all, the land of SARS, Bird Flu, the Plague (first identified in Guangdong province), wild traffic and dubious hygiene practices.

So if you do need to go and see a doctor during your stay in China, where should you go? The good news is that the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai have a number of expatriate and travel-friendly doctors, able to speak English and give you advice and treatment in a language you understand. The bad news is that these doctors are usually very expensive, especially in the case of doctors practicing at a hospital such as Beijing’s Parkway Hospital or Shanghai’s United Family Hospital.

Ambulances waiting near the Forbidden City in Beijing. Photo credit Bernhard Wintersperger.

Ambulances waiting near the Forbidden City in Beijing. Photo credit Bernhard Wintersperger.

If you’re brave enough there are a number of lower-cost government run hospitals throughout the country, but navigating through China’s public healthcare system is often fraught with a large degree of confusion for foreigners.

All major cities will have hospitals that specialize in different fields, and which are equipped with some modern facilities – usually in the diagnostic imaging department. However, we’ve said “some” modern facilities due to the fact that, despite the recommitment to the Healthy China 2020 policy issued via the 12th five-year plan in 2011, many of the country’s hospitals have still not caught up with equivalent facilities in the USA or Europe. Having said this, though, you may be in dire need of immediate medical attention, or in a city with only a limited number of hospital choices, so it’s important to understand how the local healthcare system operates.

Hospitals in China are categorized through a system of numbers and letters, with the highest quality hospitals in the country being allocated the number 3 and the letter A. A hospital with the designation 3B will be of slightly lower quality and one which has received the designation 3C will be lower still. It is important to understand that a 3C hospital is likely of the lowest quality that a western national will feel comfortable using, with hospitals in the 1 and 2 designation range unable to provide the full range of care that individuals from the USA or EU expect.

However, it is not all doom and gloom, and China is able to provide superior medical facilities in the form of hospitals which have received a designation of 3A+. Although this designation is extremely rare, hospitals which are 3A+ are able to provide some of the highest standards of care in the country. The major drawback to using a facility of this type, however, is that the costs involved will be comparable to those which are found in the expat-friendly hospitals in Shanghai and Beijing, and may not be accessible to most travellers unless they are in possession of a high-limit China health insurance policy.

The good news on Chinese hospitals is that an intense privatization drive is being undertaken by China’s government, as starting in the 1990’s many government run hospitals have increasingly become managed, owned and operated by private institutions. So what’s the good news here? Before a move was made towards a larger private network of hospitals throughout the country many Chinese doctors typically held their hospital jobs for life, no matter how poorly they performed. However, because a large number of these facilities, often hospitals with a 3A accreditation, are becoming privatized a more comprehensive system of reviews has been put into place that ensures doctors and physicians working at these facilities are able to provide standards of care commensurate with the hospital’s ratings.

If you’re out in the rural parts of the China, visiting the quiet rice paddies and mountains which are abundant throughout most of the country, then it is important to understand that there is a major disparity between the healthcare services offered in urban areas and those provided to residents of the Chinese countryside. There are very few public healthcare facilities in rural parts of China, with countryside residents having to purchase health insurance or pay for their treatments out of pocket, even though the cost of care is not large by American standards. The standard of these facilities are also not very high, with 1A and 2B class hospitals being the norm rather than the exception. Furthermore, English will not be widely spoken at rural hospitals and clinics, leading to higher levels of confusion for travellers trying to receive medical treatment.

Rice fields next to a lake just outside of Kunming in southern China. CC SA

Rice fields next to a lake just outside of Kunming in southern China. CC SA

The Final Word on the Chinese Healthcare System

China can offer a range of healthcare services, from high-quality urban hospitals catering to the expatriate population to lower-quality rural facilities offering treatments almost exclusively geared towards countryside residents. While there is healthcare available, navigating the language barriers inherent to the system can be a challenge, as can identifying the most appropriate facility for your needs.

As such you should check with your embassy or consular representative prior to arrival in China as to the medical options they recommend in line with your itinerary in order to ensure that should the worst happen you will have the care you deserve. A quality international health insurance policy will also provide a large degree of assistance in the event that you fall ill or suffer from an accident, and many international providers will operate extensive assistance call-centres in the country.

Next Time:

Cooper, Claridge-Ware takes a look at the healthcare system in Thailand. Stay tuned…

About Cooper, Claridge-Ware

Cooper, Claridge-Ware (CCW) is an independent International Health Insurance Brokerage headquartered in Hong Kong, China. With more than 55 years of experience in helping expatriates and travellers around the world find the best insurance solutions possible, CCW helps to simplify the process of identifying, and obtaining, high-quality medical coverage no matter where you may be.

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An International Health Insurance Brokerage headquartered in Hong Kong with 55 years of experience in helping expatriates and travellers find the best insurance solutions.