Over the last five years, China has put various measures in place to raise the quality of medical care and treatments. Historically, richer citizens have resorted to travelling abroad to receive treatment. For example, to Hong Kong, Japan or even further afield. This option is not available to poorer citizens, who have therefore sometimes seen the diagnosis of a serious condition as a potential death sentence. The new legislation is designed to support the development of new treatments and services at affordable prices.China aims to develop a premier healthcare system that costs significantly less than those in Western countries, such as the USA. A vast investment programme has been put in place to provide funding for public hospitals. In addition, China wants to ensure that imported pharmaceuticals are priced competitively. Already Chinese patients are paying up to 52% less for their medication, due to bulk purchasing by the Chinese government. There has also been a major initiative to improve the ratio of doctors to patients.
Although China’s national healthcare system is currently available to 90% of the population, as an expat, you will only be eligible if your taxes include a contribution to healthcare. Irrespective of tax contributions, it is strongly recommended that you have adequate private medical insurance, and that you understand exactly what your policy does and doesn’t cover.
Private medical insurance schemes are offered by both Chinese and international companies, and you may well be offered cover as part of your relocation package. However, all treatment is paid up front, generally in cash, and reclaimed afterwards, so please take this into consideration when seeking medical assistance.
Your health insurance company may be able to recommend local doctors, although you might find it beneficial to seek advice from your colleagues and / or your personal network too. There are also online applications available, with details of practitioners and their qualifications.
What medications are available in China
Despite the increased investment in the Chinese health service and the development of domestic pharmaceutical companies, not all medication is available in China. If you suffer from a long-term or serious medical condition, you should investigate whether you will be able to maintain your regular treatment. You should discuss this with your doctor before you go to China, and if necessary arrange to take sufficient supplies of your medication with you.
There are strict customs controls governing what you can and cannot bring into the country. You or your doctor should contact your country’s Chinese embassy to establish whether your medication is prohibited. For example, some psychotropic drugs are banned in China.
If your medication is permitted, your doctor will need to write a letter, detailing the treatment you need and stating clearly that it is for your personal use only. The letter must be translated into Chinese and submitted to customs on your arrival. You should obtain multiple copies, in case these are needed for your ongoing treatment. The medication must be in its original packaging and clearly labelled with your name and dosage.
Sources of medication
Chinese people have a natural suspicion of Western medicine and its potential side effects. There is also a strong belief in traditional remedies. Culturally, the Chinese work ethic involves long hours and short holidays, leaving little time for relaxation, let alone visiting a doctor. Therefore, there is a tendency to self-diagnose and self-medicate. Popular remedies include dietary supplements, immune system protection and energy enhancing products.
Due to the high levels of pollution and humidity in the country, there is also a growing demand for allergy relief, asthma treatment, cough, cold and sore throat remedies, and products to alleviate skin irritations. There has been a growth in the use of online pharmacies, where supplies can be ordered and delivered direct to the patient’s home. However, online pharmacies are not allowed to sell prescription drugs; these must be obtained from either hospital or retail pharmacies.
As part of the overall reform of the Chinese health system, and to reduce drug prices, hospitals are no longer permitted to act as profit centres for pharmaceuticals. This enables retail pharmacies to be the major suppliers of medication for both prescription and non-prescription drugs.
Visiting a pharmacy
Chinese pharmacies stock both traditional and Western medicines, including common over-the-counter products, such as anti-inflammatories, painkillers, menstrual tension relief, sore throat, cold and cough remedies, personal hygiene and prophylactic products, and antihistamines.
Pharmacists, who may or may not speak English, often prefer to offer traditional herbal remedies, rather than conventional Western medication. Storing, labelling and dosage instructions are written in Chinese, so if you are not fluent in Mandarin, you may need the assistance of an interpreter.
Legislation in China is in place to ensure that all antibiotics will only be issued on prescription. However, many retail pharmacies continue to offer antibiotics, either for specific conditions – even mild cases – or upon request by the customer.
How much do prescriptions cost?
Prescription costs vary, depending on location and treatment type. Despite the government’s determination to reduce pharmaceutical prices, some expats have experienced significantly higher costs in comparison to their domestic suppliers. You should check whether prescription charges are included in your medical insurance cover, and whether specific pharmacies are recommended.