Note: This article assumes a normal state of affairs in China and cannot predict future developments concerning the COVID-19 coronavirus. As long as the coronavirus crisis continues, always check official government guidance before travelling.
China has national health coverage, but there are significant variations in the standards of care, especially between urban and rural settings. The better-qualified health professionals are almost always found in urban areas, and village practitioners are often undertrained. Even in the cities, however, the ethos is generally that one-off treatment is better than a rolling programme of prevention and care. Hence you are unlikely to find the Western concept of having a regular dentist or optometrist who calls you in for regular check-ups. It will probably be up to you to identify your own needs and seek treatment.You should also not be lulled into a sense of false security if told to come back later. This does not necessarily mean that you have no problem, just that the problem is not yet serious enough to be judged worth dealing with.
You will need to pay for whatever treatment you get out of your own pocket, unless you have health insurance that covers dental and eye care. Even then, your insurance may only cover emergency treatment, rather than the kind of regular check-ups that you are accustomed to in the west.
China is not well supplied with dentists, with around one hundred for every one million people. About 200,000 dental implants are made annually, for a population of 1.4 billion.
Dentistry is also less regulated than other forms of healthcare, and as the basic public health insurance only covers dental emergencies (e.g. tooth extraction, but not tooth cleaning), competition for alternative sources of funding (i.e. paying customers) is high.
As prices can vary wildly, it is well worth shopping around. Dental practitioners range from street dentists, working with drills at the local market, to top-of-the-range surgeons. Bear in mind also that what is very expensive by Chinese standards can still be very cheap compared to what you would pay in the West.
The best and most reliable way of finding a practitioner is simply to ask around for recommendations. For example, you could ask your family doctor or work colleagues, who could offer you advice based on their own experiences.
In the absence of personal recommendations, your best chance of finding a dentist is to register with a hospital. Chinese dentists and physicians tend to work out of hospitals, rather than having their own practices. Hospitals also normally have better equipment and are more likely to list their rates clearly and publicly.
The top ten dental clinics and hospitals are listed on the Global Clinic Rating website.
Most hospitals will let you walk in on the day, register, and pay for an appointment. You can request either ‘regular care’ or ’special care’, the latter being more expensive, but also more prompt. The registration process can be labyrinthine, passing you from pillar to post – or at least from window to window – but there is a system and it’s worth sticking to. It will all be in Mandarin, so you may well need to take an interpreter with you.
The range and quality of services available, including those relating to dental care, will vary depending on the type of hospital you visit. Publicly funded local hospitals are the cheapest and the most reliable, and most Chinese people will use them. However, local hospitals are also where the real horror stories emerge.
When deciding which hospital to visit, it may be worth listening to popular opinion. Local private hospitals – or local hospitals with private VIP wards – are plentiful, but they cost more and are very competitive. See ‘How Much Do Health Procedures Cost in China?’ for an idea of prices.
At the top end of the scale are international clinics, which are aimed at meeting expat expectations and where the treatment is the most similar to in the West. International clinics are efficient and courteous, with good follow-up, but are also quite expensive. Note that patient care is typically far more brusque in China than Westerners are accustomed to. The work itself may be done to a good standard, but unless you are paying for it, good bedside manners are virtually non-existent.
China produces about 70% of the world’s spectacle frames, but they can still be hard to find in rural areas due to high distribution costs.
If you just need cheap reading glasses, you may have the most luck at your local store. Alternatively, market stalls often offer not just a predetermined range of prescriptions, but eye tests too. Those that don’t do tests can supply lenses based on your prescription, so take this along with you. In Beijing, stalls in the Pearl Market and the Silk Market are known to offer these services, as is the Science and Technology Market in Shanghai. In other cities, simply check out the general markets.
You may want to buy cheap frames for about 35 yuan, and then put your existing prescription lenses into them, or else you can buy frames and prescription lenses separately, for prices varying from 100 to 450 yuan.
For advice on how to buy glasses in China cheaply, read this blog.
For complicated procedures relating to eye care, you may need to search around, as China has a national shortage in this area. According to the China Medical Association, China has more than 28,000 ophthalmologists – this means approximately one per 500,000 people. 70% of these are based in big cities, and only 4,000 are qualified to conduct eye surgery. As a result of this, a recent study found that nearly 50% of the Chinese population have uncorrected sight problems, because they cannot get eye examinations. The waiting list for cataract surgery is currently about five million patients.
If you absolutely must have eye surgery (e.g. cataract operations, LASIK, glaucoma treatment), then your best option is to visit either an international hospital run to Western standards, or a member of the Aier Eye Hospital Group – this is the largest private eye hospital system in China, and member organisations are equipped with modern US technology. The largest member of the Group is the Shanghai Aier Eye Hospital.
Unless you are looking for simple prescription glasses, you are likely to find things relating to eye care expensive and inconvenient. If you can afford the fees for private eye surgery, then you can probably afford to have it done abroad.