n the over half a decade I’ve lived in Beijing, I’ve been very lucky with my health.
I’ve only had to interact with the city’s health services in an emergency-type way twice, and one of those times I wasn’t even the patient – I had to take a friend to get an X-ray after he crashed his e-bike traveling between bars.
In both instances, I found the experience to be really quite efficient. About three years ago, I woke up at 3 am feeling the worst pain I have ever experienced. It was in my mouth and it was shooting from there throughout the left side of my body. One deeply distressing cab ride later, and I found myself at the emergency dental clinic of a prestigious university. Within 10 minutes of my arrival, the dentist had been roused, a gum infection had been diagnosed (by him), and a cocktail of strong painkillers and regular antibiotics had been consumed (by me).
My friend’s experience would have taken a similar time, if the worse for wear pair that we were hadn’t slowed down the whole process by at least five minutes by laughing hysterically at the X-ray – which showed his collarbone had cleanly snapped.
Compare this with the only time I’ve ever had to use the emergency services in the UK. I was working at a construction site in the Gloucestershire market town of Dursley (fun fact: Harry Potter’s abusive aunt and uncle are named after the town). I had neglected to properly equip myself with the proper safety equipment while throwing some ancient air conditioner filters into a skip and got a face full of years of accumulated dust, dust and general grime. A piece of it – not sure if it was dust, dirt of grime – became lodged under my eyelid.
A deeply distressing van ride later, I found myself at the minor injuries clinic of a local hospital. An hour later, I found myself still at the minor injuries clinic of a local hospital. All in all it was nearly two hours before a nurse was free to pluck the UDO (unidentified dirty object) out of my eye.
So in terms of emergency services, I have no complaints about the treatment I have received or witnessed. However, for less urgent situations, I’ve found the service to be a little less consistent.
At home in the UK, when you visit the local doctor, you first tell the receptionist you’ve arrived for the appointment you made 15 phone calls in two minutes trying to get. Next, you go to a dedicated waiting area to peruse vintage magazines and read posters about heart disease. Then your name is called, you go down the corridor to the doctor’s office and close the door behind you. Privacy is paramount.
The one time I visited a local doctor in a Beijing community suffering from a cough and sore throat, privacy seemed a tad less important. As in, the doctor’s office didn’t actually have a door. While the doctor administered a chest exam, a trio of elderly ladies trooped into the room while my shirt was off and spent the whole exam chuckling among themselves at what they saw. I suppose I should count myself lucky that my problem was above the belt.
But that’s what you should expect at a public clinic, right? Most people avoid these generally run-down places as far as I can tell, leading to the chronic overcrowding of hospitals – especially the better-funded big city hospitals.
However, while the doctor who failed to at least shush the gray-haired Greek chorus of geriatric gigglers let me down with her apathy, a recent visit to a private health check center left me unsettled by the staff’s enthusiasm.
A lot of our interactions with healthcare professionals are basically very embarrassing, and part of their job is to make us feel comfortable. And usually, they do a pretty good job, no matter where you are. Unfortunately for me, one of the doctors taking a gander at my nooks and crannies was altogether too excited to be checking me out – I presume that foreigners are not his usual specimens and he was enjoying the break from the monotony.
Oh, how I longed for that public clinic apathy as he got to grips with my body while quizzing me on my national origins and feelings toward China. It’s hard to give a stranger honest answers while your most tender parts are in the palm of his hand.
Eventually the exam finished, I thanked him, left without shaking his hands and moved on. When I got my results, they showed me that I’m still lucky.