An Expat's Guide to Shanghai Doctor Appointments
Booking an appointment at a local Shanghai hospital has become easier than ever, but maybe not for Shanghai expats.
With the heavy pollution in Shanghai in early 2014, my asthma was acting up, so I needed to visit a doctor and get some medicine.
Previously you could go directly to the pharmacy and buy almost any kind of medicine quite easily, but now this usually requires a doctor’s subscription.
Besides getting some medicine, I also wanted to have blood tests and an X-ray to make sure I didn't have anything more serious.
For the last two years I have chosen to use a Shanghai international hospital for their shorter waiting times, and more time with the doctor for a thorough consultation. It is also very easy to book an appointment over the phone in English for a Shanghai international hospital.
For my mild chronic asthma, however, I did not want to pay the much higher fees for tests in addition to the consultation fee. My medical insurance only covers inpatient (hospitalization) fees, so I must cover all out-patient fees myself.
As I have the big advantage of speaking
Chinese, I can also communicate quite easily at a local Shanghai
International hospitals and clinics in Shanghai charge RMB 400-800 for an initial consultation.
VIP wards of local Shanghai hospitals with English speaking local doctors such as Ren’ai and Huashan charge about RMB 500 for a consultation; so similar to visiting a foreign doctor in Shanghai.
I have always found the consultation fees at international hospitals more than worth the money for their much better service.
The higher cost for X-Rays, blood tests and other tests at international hospitals or VIP wards, however, is a bigger deterrent. For instance, I paid RMB 70 for an X-ray on my lungs at the local Shanghai hospital, which will cost you about RMB 450 at an international clinic or VIP ward.
I spent about RMB 1,500 for an ultrasound at an international clinic in Shanghai compared to the RMB 80 my Chinese friend paid at a local hospital.
The international hospitals might use higher-quality imported equipment, which is much less used compared to the equipment at local hospitals, but the price can still be quite a burden if you are paying yourself.
Even if you speak Chinese it is basically impossible to book a doctor’s appointment over the phone for a local Shanghai hospital. So I went directly to Huashan hospital, which I normally choose for its good reputation and proximity to my home in Jingan district of Shanghai Puxi.
When I arrived at Huashan hospital there were the usual large crowds and long line-ups, or as they say in Chinese "People Mountain People Sea" (人山人海, Rén Shān Rén Hǎi).
Fortunately, there are many guides with red ribbons nearby each line to help direct traffic and give information. The guide sent me to a very short line to get a number, but after I explained I had chronic asthma, the nurse said I would need to see a specialist doctor (专科医生, zhuānkē yīshēng), which would require booking a pre-appointment.
As a foreigner, however, this turned out to be impossible, since a Chinese ID card is required. Feeling frustrated, I left the hospital and decided I would need to go back to the international clinic.
In the evening, however, when I told my Chinese friend what had happened, he was very excited to tell me how easy it has become to book a Shanghai doctor’s appointment through many new websites or mobile healthcare apps recently launched.
He showed me the website/app Good Doctor On Line (好大夫在线, Hào DàiFū ZàiXiàn) http://www.haodf.com/ which not only lets you book appointments, but also lets you search for doctors based on their specialty and see their biography.
Patient comments are also shown, but these are mostly positive, as you can not leave anonymous reviews at this site (people can be nervous to leave a negative review with their identity attached). Unfortunately this website is only available in Chinese.
My friend tried to book an appointment for me, but sure enough, it required a local ID number. He then booked the appointment in his own name. The appointment was for a couple days later between 1:30-2:00 pm. When we arrived at 1:45 pm there were just a couple of people in front of us.
Arriving at the front of the line my friend explained that the appointment was actually supposed to be for me. Luckily, instead of cancelling the appointment, the nurse was very friendly and took us immediately to see the doctor.
The doctor asked another patient to wait while he attempted to change the name in the computer system. To his surprise, however, it was impossible and he blamed this on the new system.
He then said we could try to use my name with my friend's ID number. Voila, within an instant I had achieved something I could never achieve in more than 20 years in China, I had become a quasi-Chinese citizen with a Chinese ID number.
The Doctor gave me a new waiting number and I sat in the chair just outside his office. As they limit the number of patients for each half-hour pre-appointment time-frame, I only needed to wait another 15 minutes for my turn (much shorter than normal line-ups, as you will read below).
The doctor quickly prescribed an X-ray and blood tests and asked me to come back to see him with the results. Lining up for the X-ray and blood tests was very quick, but they told me I would need to wait 1-3 hours for all the results, by which time the Shanghai doctor's shift would have finished.
Having nothing else to do, however, I decided to wait in the hospital. To my pleasant surprise the X-ray result came back in just 30 minutes, so I rushed back to the doctor.
After looking at the X-ray he checked on his computer and found my blood test results were also available in the system. As expected, he told me that it was no more than mild asthma, so prescribed some medication and asked me to come back in a week if my situation hadn't improved.
Definitely much quicker and more efficient than I had ever experienced at a local Shanghai hospital before.
Although it is difficult for Shanghai expats to use this new system to book a doctor's appointment, I was very happy that it is now much more convenient for local people.
The disadvantages of using a local Shanghai hospital; lack of privacy, short consultation time, etc., however, still remain.
A couple months after my asthma issue, I had a serious case of diarrhea. My Chinese friend was not around to help me book an appointment online, but I thought diarrhea should only require visiting a general doctor in Shanghai rather than a specialist, so I headed to Huashan hospital by myself.
There was a long line-up to see the general doctor for stomach problems, but sure enough I did not need to show any ID, and they gave me a number to wait inline.
There were 70 other patients in front of my number, so I sat down prepared for a long wait. Fortunately, the numbers started clicking by at a nice pace, and after about two hours it was my turn; that's less than 2 minutes per patient!
When I entered the small Shanghai doctor's room, the next few patients were also standing inside. I did not want to discuss my bowel movements with all these smiling strangers, so I politely, but forcefully moved them out of the room.
The doctor asked me a few questions then immediately prescribed some blood tests, using up my fair share of two minutes of her time. As it was already 4pm, I was worried I would need to book a new appointment after I got the results.
So I suggested she just give me some standard diarrhea medicine. But the doctor insisted I take the blood tests in order to find out the real problem, and also assured me there would be enough time to come back to see her the same day.
Sure enough, I got the results back in about 20 minutes, and it proved to be a good call on the doctor's part, as it showed I had a serious infection which would require some strong antibiotics.
She suggested I take a few days of IV, a common approach of Chinese doctors, but I asked for pills instead, as I did not want to sit in the hospital 2-3 hours a day for the next 3-4 days.
The doctor gave me a 2-3 day supply of antibiotics, and asked me to come back for a further check-up and more medicine in a few days.
Not wanting to return, however, I used the receipt for the medicine from the hospital, in lieu of a real prescription, to buy an extra three days of antibiotics at the local pharmacy to make sure I would not need to go back.
Certainly a long wait and very little consultation time with the doctor, but a good price for decent care.
Apart from the website I used to book the doctor's appointment in Shanghai, I have also found several other new Shanghai mobile healthcare apps and websites. Unfortunately most of these are only in Chinese.
Here are a few of them:
Good Doctor On Line
The app I used to book an appointment at Shanghai's Huashan hospital was Good Doctor On Line (好大夫在线 Hào dàfū zàixiàn)
This app lists thousands of doctors and hospitals all around China, and allows you to search for a specialist doctor by hospital or illness. You can then see the doctor's bio.
You can leave general health questions online and get a simple reply from a doctor for free (mostly saying you should visit a doctor).
You can book a phone consultation with your chosen doctor with fees ranging from 90 to 360 RMB for a 15-minute consultation. Most importantly, you can book a face-to-face appointment with a doctor as I did.
Shanghai Carevoice mobile healthcare app
A recently launched app by a French expat who previously worked for Sanofi in Shanghai, is CareVoice; Chinese name KangYu 康语.
This app is building a social community for Chinese to discuss the quality of healthcare they have received from doctors and hospitals in Shanghai. Within six months of launch it has more than 5,000 registered users and over 10,000 patient reviews of Shanghai doctors and hospitals.
This will certainly help raise healthcare standards in Shanghai, as providers take more concern of patient's social media reviews in order to maintain and build their reputation. This app now has an English version for expats seeking reviews of doctors and hospitals in Shanghai.
Shanghai Amicare mobile healthcare app
French company Aegle has developed this mobile healthcare app that might be helpful for Shanghai expats.
The app, Amicare, comes in English, French and Chinese, and helps expats search for international hospitals and clinics in Shanghai, see profiles of their Shanghai foreign doctors, and put in an application for an appointment online.
WeiYi (微医) Guahao.com
Tencent, known for its popular Wechat (WeiXin- 微信) app, recently invested in this healthcare company, which started off as the Guahao (挂号- register appointment) website.
With the investment, they changed their app name to WeiYi to better associate it with WeiXin. This app and website allows users to search through over 1,000 hospitals and 120,000 doctors around China, book an appointment and rate hospitals.
It already has more than 37 million users. Soon it will be integrated with Wechat to facilitate Online payment for medical services.
QPGJK (Qing Ping Guo Jian Kang 青苹果健康)
This mobile healthcare app was developed by a returning Shanghainese with a MBA from Harvard.
With this app you can arrange consultations with a doctor over the phone. This type of consultation can be much longer than the typical 2-5 minute consultation you will receive if you go to a local Shanghai hospital. This app is currently only available in Chinese.
Android App (through Tencent)
Chun Yu (春雨) mobile healthcare app
The company behind this app is touted to have recently received the largest ever investment for a healthcare startup in China.
Chunyu offers in-app chats and phone calls with real doctors. Asking questions on forums is free with registration, as are 90-second phone calls with physicians.
You must pay for the many value added services including longer private consultations by phone, scheduling appointments, and having a private doctor on call. You can search the forums for previous discussions on various illnesses.
The app can also be connected to various medical devices; wearable healthcare tech, and share the results between physician and patient for better diagnostics.
Already 30 million users consult with 40,000 doctors around China through this app, which is currently only available in Chinese.
Baby 120 was developed especially for pregnant Shanghai expats and therefore is in English.
It allows you to search for pediatric facilities in Shanghai, arranged in order of distance from your home, and including maps so you can see where they are located. It also tells you which hospitals have English service.
Unfortunately it doesn't give the address in Chinese, which could be a problem if you are rushing to one of the facilities by taxi.