Sticker Shock: The Cost of Giving Birth in China

Sticker Shock: The Cost of Giving Birth in China
Jul 18, 2009 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang, www ,

Beijing is expensive. It is not as expensive as say, New York or London (although if you wanted to, you could certainly make it so), but it is definitely more expensive than second tier Chinese cities like Kunming, and probably rivals smaller American towns for certain expenses.

The expense doesn’t bother me most of the time, after all, my salary is higher here, and although I spend more due to the fact that certain things — like English language books — are more available, I do save more than I did in Kunming. However, the prices of some things occasionally manage to surprise me — like when we spent 500 RMB taking my mom and dad out for Mexican food, or how getting my son immunizations routinely costs about 200 RMB (and immunizations are FREE for Chinese kids!). However, the cake was not just taken, but snatched straight from my hands when I went to the OBGYN yesterday.


I suppose it serves me right for choosing a private hospital for baby #2, on the recommendation of some other online moms. Beijing has a plethora of hospital options and I’d already ruled out expat staples like Beijing United Family Hospital and Peking Union as too expensive. Beijing United lists their price for the birth alone as 50,000 RMB, but they’re an international hospital with foreign doctors and most, if not all of their patients are using overseas insurance policies provided by their cushy expat packages. That kind of hospital is clearly out of my budget, but I chose a good private Chinese hospital, one that offered water births and was open to allowing my husband in the room. It seemed like a good compromise. I’d been twice already before yesterday’s appointment, and each time had set me back a couple hundred RMB. Expensive, compared to Kunming, where my routine checkups would run about 20 RMB apiece, but not unheard of.

But then yesterday I showed up, on an empty stomach, because I’d been told I needed to do some sort of blood test requiring no food be in my body, where they’d screen for all sorts of diseases. I obligingly sent my husband off to pay while I had my blood pressure taken. He came back about 5 minutes later and says he doesn’t have enough money. That can’t be right, I thought – we’ve just hit the bank, we have at least 1000 RMB on us. The test costs more than 1000 RMB? Indeed it does, 1200 RMB to be exact, for a blood test.

To put things into perspective, you might recall from my previous article that in Kunming it cost 1300 RMB to give birth to my son, and that included a private room and this “kit” the hospital makes all parents buy that includes a baby blanket and pillow and some other stuff. I think my husband half expected me to insist on going through with the test, so I could see his relief when I just told the doctors straight out no, no way could we afford to spend 1200 RMB on a blood test. That it was ridiculous; no way was I going to pay the same amount on one blood test that I spent having a child. The doctors tried to convince me that every hospital in Beijing was like this. That’s just the difference between Beijing and Kunming, they said. Well, I said to my husband, if that’s the case I guess we’ll have no choice but to go back to Kunming to have our second!

Photo: Marc van der Chijs

I would have expected something like this from an international hospital catering to expats or overseas returnees. That’s why I didn’t choose such a hospital. This was a Chinese hospital, no foreign doctors, no English speaking Chinese doctors even — although they seemed to have treated some foreigners before, it was clearly aimed at a Chinese market. Anyhow, I guess no fancy hospital with water births for me, it’ll have to be a full-on Chinese hospital again for #2, because, while my salary in Beijing allows us to live comfortably, I just can’t imagine paying 10, or possibly even 20 times what I paid in Kunming for essentially the same service.

So what is an expectant mother to do? This is a question that many expats in Beijing seem to struggle with, especially those of us who cannot afford the astronomical costs of an international hospital, but who are a bit wary of going the full-on Chinese route. To break it down, giving birth in a shoddy clinic or second rate hospital will cost less than 1000 RMB, a respectable, but not famous public Chinese hospital will probably cost you less than between 2000-5000 RMB to have a baby in Beijing. A famous “san jia” (a ratings system for Chinese hospitals categorizes them as 1 jia, 2 jia and 3 jia – 3 jia being the best) public hospital will cost you between 5000-10,000 RMB to have a baby; a private hospital, like the one I had originally planned on going to will cost between 10,000-20,000 RMB; and an international hospital, upwards of 50,000RMB. Any public Chinese hospital, even the wonderful famous hospitals like Beida Hospital and Peking Union, will involve long lines, waiting for ages, running around like mad only to be told, for instance, that sorry, you need to get your blood drawn before 10:50 on Tuesdays and because it is 9:00 on a Wednesday you’re out of luck. It can be infuriating, which is why more and more people choose private hospitals; but private hospitals, with their nice service, short wait times, and royal treatment for patients do not have the medical reputations that public hospitals do. Some are quite good, some are not so good. Some offer more options and more modern treatment for expectant mothers, like water births, midwives, epidurals, and the option for the husband to be present at the delivery. Public Chinese hospitals tend to be quite traditional, offer no pain relief, often push c-sections, and, due to crowding, usually no relatives allowed in the delivery room.

There is really no correct answer to this question. Every family has to choose what is best for their situation and for their finances. For us, we will probably go with a respectable Chinese hospital that suits our needs and with doctors we can trust. The famous Chinese hospitals offer a big name and reassurance, but ultimately they cost much more than their less famous counterparts for essentially the same treatment – long lines, runarounds, agonizing waits. Probably the very best option for any expat in China is to look into independent insurance policies, which for less than $2000 (USD) a year can give you full coverage, including maternity, and access to the holy grails of hospitals – the internationals. No matter what, I wish anyone going through this frustrating and rather intimidating process anywhere in China the best of luck. With a bit of searching, you should be able to find just what you’re looking for.

Related Links
Having a Baby in Nanjing
I Want To Raise My Family in China – Am I Crazy?
You're Having Him Where? Giving Birth in Kunming

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