In the past, people often startled me slightly whenever they mentioned that a friend or relative had been to hospital.
For anyone like me, the thought of visiting a hospital evokes the thought of more serious ailments or injuries. However, on inquiring what the matter was, I would usually learn the individual in question was merely suffering a common cold, headache or some other trivial affliction.
As you could imagine then, hospitals are packed on a daily basis, and patients sometimes need to reserve days in advance if they hope to see a doctor, a process called ‘Guahao挂号.’ For a time, touts used to book up popular time slots in city hospitals and sell them on in quite a lucrative, but rather underhanded scheme. This continued until the process went digital and patients had to reserve in their own name.
However, there is a second reasonable option for minor ailments, that of the neighbourhood clinic, known as a ‘Zhensuo诊所’ in Chinese.
It’s possible for any practitioner with the right credentials to open a clinic, so you see a lot of independently run examples, as well as branded names that open up around the city.
This also means there is an element of fortune involved when you choose a clinic at random, some are definitely better and cosier than others. Whenever you decide you need to visit, you can always ask friends or locals for a place they recommend, as they have almost certainly been themselves in the past.
The Basic Layout
Most clinics are leased shopfloor properties right on the streetside, their name in large bright signs, and transparent glass frontages with doors wide open.
The atmosphere is very laid back, so there aren’t people justling window after window as they vie to register, make reservations, fork out prescription costs, retrieve medicine, and so on. Usually, you can just walk into a clinic anytime and see a practitioner very quickly.
Interior decor is invariably white tiled floors and whitewashed walls, but with plenty of boards and posters offering health advice and medicines hanging up. On duty practitioners have small open cubicles, and after checking your symptoms, tongue and pulse, will prescribe a course of treatment.
You might very likely see a line of maroon coloured flags with golden frills draped over some of the walls, and Chinese writing that praises the medical practictioner for professional achievements, recogniton from Chinese medical institutions, and even words of gratitude from former patients. As well as being a decorative feature, they also help to raise trust from members of the public seeking them for health treatment and advice.
A line of glass display cabinets are full of packaged medications, and surround a giant chest of drawers that reach the ceiling, each one containing various dried herbs, plants, flowers, even bugs, that nurses in the middle carefully weigh out on scales and combine into individual doses for the patient to boil up at home.
Next along, there is a preparation room where nurses prepare intravenous drip bottles. Inside is a glucose formula to which any liquid form medication can be injected through a porous cap.
On any visit, you are going to see many people using this form of treatment, which people call ‘Shu-shui输水’ in Chinese, literally meaning ‘Transfuse water or liquid.’
Before I came to China, I always associated the intravenous drip with serious medical conditions requiring operations or prolonged hospital stays. In China, though, these are regularly used by adults and children alike for even quite trivial ailments.
At the same time, not everybody supports this practice. There are often reports on television and in newspapers on potential dangers that over-reliance on the drip may cause, and a casual Chinese search on Baidu brought up a lot of amusing cartoons for me to use as this posts’s feature image. However, I’m not an expert on this matter, so I’ll just continue to explain the practical side of visiting a clinic.
There are normally a few beds for patients feeling more under the weather, or those wanting a nap when the treatment takes longer to administer. Otherwise, the done thing is to sit on metal benches while the bottles are hung upside down above your head on a stand. Sometimes, when they are busy, you can see practical makeshift solutions where intravenous bottles dangle from clothes hangers fixed to wooden poles.
Since real hospitals deal with more serious health complaints, most people casually sit down, walk about, or doze on a bed while the bottles slowly empty out.
Occasionally, there sights I never enjoy witnessing. The main one is the local practice of toddlers using an intravenous drip. Since they are more likely to interfere with needles stuck in their hands, nurses tend to use in a vein in their forehead instead. And though they never seem in much distress over it, I’ve always found the sight of these children a little too pitiful to watch.
Privacy is always in short supply, as all of the public sections are usually grouped into into a common open space. That said, most people just mind their own business, lose themselves into a mobile phone screen, or perhaps strike up a conversation with a fellow patient or acquaintance.
Of course, as foreign patients are a rarity, you can certainly expect more public curiosity in addition to your source of discomfort. However, the locals might come across a bit nosy, but I can say from experience that a greeting of some sort, even speaking a few words, lightens everybody up, and everything usually ends in friendly smiles.
I’m a great old fashioned advocate of plentiful rest and warm lemon water when under the weather. Whilst not claiming there is anything fundamentally wrong with the clinics or hospitals, I’ve always kept them as a last resort, or until I yield to relatives constantly twisting my arm.
The two ailments that ever motivate me to seek treatment is either an upset stomach, or smog induced coughs that really sap your evergy away. Whenver this is the case, I tend to pay that little extra for a bed, and then sleep the experience off as much as possible. Attentive nurses should check your line regularly to replace bottles when you’ve dozed off.
I can’t say I’ve had a bad experience with a clinic. For the most part, the whole process is faster and much less stressful than a hospital, and since you can find them on virtually every street, a visit often simply entails a short walk. Once you have your course of treatment sorted, you just show up, choose your spot, and the staff deals with the rest.
Needless to say, none of this should be necessary when travelling through, but longer term residents will undoubtedly live to see the day haute cuisine, bout of smog or something else eventually drives a visit.