Take a Number: How to Handle a Chinese Hospital

Take a Number: How to Handle a Chinese Hospital
Feb 24, 2012 By eChinacities.com

Since I decided to give birth at a public Chinese hospital, I've had to resign myself to the realities that this entails. Namely, fighting for a number to see the OB/GYN, the endless back and forth of going to this counter, that counter, running from one building to the next, to the ultrasound tech on the second floor to the doctor back on the first floor, getting more prescriptions, needing to have blood drawn but then finding out that the hospital only takes blood on alternate Thursdays between 8:15 and 10:50am, and endless other small frustrations that make leaving the hospital each time feel like I'm exiting a war zone. However, nothing gets my blood boiling more than the line up to see the doctor, something that should be a simple enough process, but simply … isn't.

Take a Number: How to Handle a Chinese Hospital
Photo: Andres Rueda

First, we have to back up a bit. I live about 40 minutes by bus from my chosen hospital. I say "chosen" but actually once I decided to use a public hospital, I discovered that in Beijing I was not allowed to give birth in most hospitals, and had to choose a "three star" hospital. I chose the Women's and Children's Hospital associated with Beida, a hospital near Beihai, a considerable distance from my place in Haidian. This hospital is quite popular with the Chinese as it has an excellent medical reputation, and I once saw a Russian woman there, so apparently some foreigners do choose it as well. However, my hospital's excellent reputation means that you have to fight to be seen. While the process of "gua hao" (registration, or "taking a number") isn't as bad as the top-flight Peking Union hospital, where people actually sleep in front of the hospital to secure their place in line for the following morning, I have to show up pretty early if I want a chance at a number, let alone a decent number that will allow me to be seen within a few hours.

So we get up at six, leave by seven, and make it to the hospital before eight am. The hospital starts registering people at 7:30, so if we make it before 8 we can usually get a fairly decent number, but there are no guarantees. Two weeks ago I showed up at 7:45 and was given number 49, an awful number which virtually assured that I'd be at the hospital until noon at least. Two days ago I showed up at the same time and got number 4, a great number. I chalked my luck up to being one of the few people willing to brave the hospital on the day after it had snowed. In fact, I had banked on the snow keeping the cold-fearing Chinese people away from the OB/GYN, and my gamble indeed paid off. Or so I thought. More on that later.

The truly infuriating part is yet to come, however. At my hospital if you have a normal number, that is, you have not paid the extra 10 RMB for the privilege of seeing an "expert" doctor, then the procedure is this: you pick up your medical history, get weighed in, have your blood pressure taken, have your measurements done, and then you line up according to the number you've been assigned and wait to see the doctor. The way you line up is by placing your medical history, with your number, the registration slip you were given, on top and clearly visible, on a table in numerical order. This is where it gets tricky, because there are about 50 medical histories lined up on the table, and people are constantly coming in and sticking theirs in the middle, so you have to be vigilant that yours does not get "misplaced" in the shuffle. There is also a very real danger of others trying to cut in line (shocking, I know), and if you're not careful, you'll find yourself at the back of the pack.

Two weeks ago, when I was number 49 and depressed enough about that fact as it was, I got up to go to the bathroom, came back and found that numbers 50 and 53 had somehow migrated to the front of my medical history. Scathing looks were exchanged as I grumpily moved my number back to the front. I'd been waiting for about 4 hours already and I was not about to fall victim to shenanigans. Sometimes the atmosphere around the table gets tense. It is not uncommon to have your medical history, say my number 49, all near the front of the line, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, the numbers 46, 47, and 48, who had been outside having a bowl of noodles knowing they wouldn't be seen any time soon, magically appear in front of yours. This is not against the rules either, since everything is according to number. If I happened to have gotten number 1, I could have legitimately cut to the front of the line at any time during the morning, no matter how much it angered my fellow patients. Usually there is a group of women who hover about the table and, infuriatingly, go through the histories about every 2 minutes, to see who is at front. This creates even more chaos, as there is not much room near the table, and when the doctor comes out to take the next history and calls the next patient, she is often swarmed by the hoverers, which, of course irritates her and if you're number 49 she's not in a very good mood by the time she actually gets to see you.

So what about two days ago, when I got number 4? In fact, I'd been so fed up with the table system after my fiasco with number 49 that I'd decided to dole out the extra 10 RMB, splurge and see an "expert." And indeed, I was in and out of that doctor's office within about 20 minutes. I never even saw numbers 1, 2, or 3, in fact, I don't think they'd even shown up by the time I left. However, instead of being out of the hospital and on my way home by 9:00am, I still didn't leave the place until almost 11:30. How is this possible, you ask, with such a great number as 4? Well, it just so happens that at 37 weeks pregnant I have to do weekly non-stress tests, NSTs, as they're called. NSTs are done on a, you guessed it, number system. So while I had number 4 for the doctor, I was probably about 5 minutes too late signing up for the NST, and ended up being number 19. So despite my initial luck, I still ended up waiting around the hospital until nearly noon. Good thing I'd planned ahead and brought a book.

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Keywords: Chinese public hospitals health care system China giving birth China expat health in China


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How the public watching a gambling(Playing Cards)on a wooden box at a footpath corner at here, the same way people are surrounding the doctor's table in their consulting room !!! Why they can not call the patient's name one by one same like everywhere in the world with the help of an assistant or nurse ? Huh,,,... Funny thing is You can see the strict " Q " system especially unimportant places under the control of guards at here ! Weird !

Apr 12, 2012 00:30 Report Abuse



Ghosh...these experiences are like nightmares that give goose bumps even after years when you think of them!! I had one too. My really beautiful daughter...when was 8 mths of age, caught some infection. We visited her regular paed and he said they were just nappy rashes..mm..I had been very particualr about not makingher wear diapers whole day long..it was a strict no-no for a Mum like me..Night time was the only diaper time from her to have a sound sleep..and to keep that so I had a tough time for months together taking her to the Loo every 40mins or so to keep her dry. But having been on a vacation for the last 4 days, I thought, yes may be, nappy rashes..2 days passed with the ointment and to my surprise..there were rashes on her neckline..she was a lovely chubby girl...and sweat accumulation, no chance..I have been a hygienic Mum..again to the paed...change of medication...another night passed..situation worsens and rashes come over her face..we reach out to skin specialist in ner by area..he suggests steroids, which me and hubby were not convinced with..Another skin specialist..one rascal, I wont forget to mention...when I called at his recpetion and told his assitant the situation and requested for an emergency appointment, he at first tells me that the fee is 500INR at home and 200INR at hospital, where he would go the alternate day..I said no its urgent...COuldn't locate the clinic...called up again...doctor picks up himself by chance, I ask him , in panic,PLZ DIRECT US TO YOUR CLINIC...his reply - I am so famous..ask anyone!! Asked a few chemists..no clue..called again - Why are you calling again n again..I'll charge extra for disturbing me..AND that was all...I blasted out with all possible fucking words I ever heard to make him realise his worth..
Calls began for another specialist, got one..Steroids again..and my baby sleeping in my arms...Begun with the mediaction...By that evening, her face swelled up thrice its original and she would just SIT STILL..moving only her eyes :-(..We were praying hard, tryingto trust the new medicines..Night came, she had too li'll by then..I had prepared almost 4 liquid dishes for her...she would like something may be, but all in vain. ENtire night, me and hubby kept a watch, had no other choice...she didn't have a drop of feed or a sip of water for the last 9 hours. SHe was feeling like passing stool..we made her sit onher potty...she gave a loud cry and OMG...her skin, crocodile skin by now, got cuts bcos of her cry and we could see blood spots..picked her up and shebled from stool...SHocked, hubby held her tight..and the worst I ever heard from that strong man on earth - Oh God..hea lher or take her away!! He hugged her, she cried..I pulled his hair..his shirt to take him away...called the paed crying...rushed to an intsructed hospital bit far from his place..It was about 6 in the morning...She was taken to emergency ..I kept singing her prayers to keep her calm...junior doctors..interns...God knows who all kept coming to see her..touch her..examine her..trying to put a vein flow..but none could..until the time... I shouted at top of my voice - "My daughter is not a buject for you guys..Call the senior doctor from emergency right now...or I'm calling the police." 5min and the doctor was there but by then, my baby was exhausted...There entered the paed..we took a sigh of relief..he took her inside..and in 1 shot, there went the vein flow and she was rushed to the ICU. AFter hospitalisation and sleepless days and nights for 10 days, all nurses would come over to have a click with her. They said - "we can't believe...that monster baby was so beautiful within!! hmmphhh...It took her 7 months to recover, with even her nails and eyebrows shed and regrowing..and after that too, each vaccination of hers...make us reach the hospital :-(

Forgot to state, the day before her admission, when we were running for the RIGHT doctor, we took her in that state, to th most famous hospitals of the city....and all refued admission...no doctor entertained her, when the recptionist told about the condition...The most famous hospitals... That paediatrician came like God to us. This was DELHI....capital of India and we, Indians who had all the money to afford the fees and treatment. God knows how does an average Indian suffer here.
God bless all with humanity.

Feb 27, 2012 21:43 Report Abuse



a nice reminder that China is by no means the only country in the world which doesn't meet Western standards of service. Some Westerners who live here need reminding.

Feb 28, 2012 17:23 Report Abuse


Harry Paratestecles

Yeah ......."nice" (?) But let me remind you that this is eCHINAcities and serves for the purpose of uppity foreigners to wank about the USA and it's ignorant peoples.

Feb 28, 2012 19:32 Report Abuse



Lucky enough. There is also another reality. My wife gave birth in a normal hospital (still supposed to be the best one in town). People were smoking and drinking everywhere. Sometimes strangers were lying in our bed when we came back from a test or whatever. WC got broken for several times. We did not have another patient in our room, but her whole clan day and night. Nurses didn't come when called. Windows and doors were open. It was below zero. Sticky stuff, blood and piss and other things on the floor and the walls. C-section, of course, five times more expensive than natural birth. (Blood pressure too hight, but the second time with another machine it was ok!) Did know what to do and gave my okay. The expert we had paid for was suddenly gone, but had left us a good friend. - My wife came back, covered with blood. I had to carry her myself into her bed. They put newspapers underneath the bed to dry up the blood. They had not given her anything against pain and she was screaming her lungs out. Costs 8000 RMB, a nightmare of blood, dirt and ice. - I could tell you even worse stories.

Feb 27, 2012 17:57 Report Abuse



I have complete same experience with my wifes birth-giving. Really, just no newspapers, but sore really hard recycled paper, which have to buy by myself. on the WC, have been trown the bloody papers and all just on the floor. I still got the photo from mobile i took that time. We was not allowed to put our stuff in the room, just together when moving in with the newborn. so 3 bags of clothing and stuff in my hands, put down, receive my son from "sister" and 20 minits later i have helped some guy to move my wife on the bed. and all day long sister came twice, just check temperature ( which we find on the bill as separate process maybe 20x 5rmb, shit) and press her belly in the c-section part, to invrease the pain of her. really shit experience. Than clan of neighbouring pacient was there too.

Jan 09, 2013 11:46 Report Abuse



What long, dreary moaning stories. Jesus.H. Small people, small lives.

Feb 27, 2012 04:05 Report Abuse


Harry Paratestecles

Seriously? Moaning that people are moaning when are posting possibly life-saving advice? You're obviously the life of the party. Please share with us how your life is so superior so we can all have something to strive for.

Feb 27, 2012 21:03 Report Abuse


Harry Paratestecles

If you want to get admitted immediately to any hospital, you go straight to the receptionist or admittance clerk/nurse and and puke all over the desk. If you can get some on her lap or uniform is even quicker. Immediate entrance, guaranteed. No ticket required.

4 years ago I felt some pain in my lower right abdomen and got more and more excruciating by the minute and went to the nearest hospital which happened to be the largest in my area. They put me on a bed in the emergency room and pretty much forgot about me while I endured pain that made me want to break down and cry like a little girl.(but I wasn't going to give them the satisfaction) They refused to give me morphine or any other painkiller until the ER doctor ok'd it. But the doctor was conveniently unavailable every time I asked to see him. It became an ordeal where I was truly just trying to get from 1 minute to the next. 14 hours later, a friend of mine showed up and carried me to another hospital where he had a friend that was a doctor who took 1 look at me and announced that I was minutes from death and pushed back the other scheduled surgeries and they prepped me for immediate surgery while my friend went to the front and paid the 18,000 kuai for my surgery in advance. I still hadn't got even a fucking aspirin so when the anesthesiologist put the gas mask over my face I inhaled as if I'd wiped out surfing Jaws and been held underwater for minutes before reaching the surface. Anything to make the pain disappear. Upon waking up several hours later, I learned that I had developed 4 gallstones the size of dice which had punctured my gall bladder and became infected(abcessed?) spreading toxins through my body and I had a body temperature of 107(about 43 celcius) when I had been brought in. I still have the gallstones in a small jar (HEY! The chicks dig it when I show them) The fun was just beginning when I was allowed a single shot of Demerol the first day and after requesting another shot several hours later when the pain from the surgery returned, I was told it's not allowed because I could become "addicted". The doctor said this with a straight face. I was then given the lecture of how the pain tolerance of Chinese is much higher than westerners. Unfortunately, I was in no condition to test his pain threshold of my hands choking his fucking weasel neck.

I think I mentioned on a previous thread that people coming here should bring a bottle of Vicodin or Percodan as Chinese doctors are really stingy with the painkillers. I keep a box of 10 under the seat of my motorcycle for emergency since I dread having a wreck and knowing the ambulance response time,etc. I will never allow myself to have to endure this kind of experience ever again. I later learned that the first hospital had intentionally ignored me for 2 reasons. 1st was that they didn't want to have to deal with the chance of a dead foreigner, the loss of face and paperwork was too overwhelming. 2nd was that in my urgency to get to the hospital I had forgotten my passport and there was nothing they could hold onto to make sure I didn't skip out on the bill. It was their intention all along to make me leave. If this were the USA I would own that hospital now. In China..... not even a "too bad, so sad".
I spent a week in the hospital and I was bedridden almost a month afterwards. Ironically, I saw on the way out that the hospital that saved my life was affiliated with the California hospital that had killed my father during his surgery after a skydiving accident and my family is still in litigation with. Small world.

Feb 26, 2012 04:26 Report Abuse


Harry Paratestecles

OOOPS! I forgot to add.....
I don’t know if anyone will benefit from my experience. I’m still pretty bitter about the whole thing, not to mention that I have a deep suspicion that the stones were a direct result of the melamine-tainted milk powder that killed some infants a few years back. But people should have some kind of insurance and contingency plan. I was(and am again) a very healthy, fit and athletic man. I was really caught off-guard and I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone.(OK not anyone, I wish on George W. Bush and a few others )
If I can be treated so poorly and I'm a supposedly "entitled" foreigner, I can't imagine what the average Chinese have to deal with.

Sorry about the mega-comment but it was kind of necessary to explain what happened instead of just saying “I was in a Chinese hospital and it really sucked”.

Feb 26, 2012 04:34 Report Abuse



And you guys couldn't go home, at least for the birth?

Feb 25, 2012 23:09 Report Abuse



I don't think nobody ever had an experience like mine. I gave birth to a premature baby that cost me a fortune to keep them in the incubator for 40 days. The hospital found me a cancer that never existed.
Also, I had twins, premature labor, natural birth at 24 weeks, I needed a surgery and needed to sign a doc saying that my life was at risk. The babies were born normally, but very small. They put them in a supermarket bag. yea, life goes on...

Feb 25, 2012 00:31 Report Abuse



Ouch, that's pain :(

Jan 09, 2013 10:53 Report Abuse



going to hospital in china... ! damn !
God forbids.... i really wish all foreigners salubrity. hospital here are worst then circus. if you measure the distance travelled in hospital will be nearly 5km or more than that and money will drain like sand bag have a hole. God gives the chinese health ministry some sense to make it convenient for locals and foreigners as well.
nice article........

Feb 24, 2012 22:55 Report Abuse



While Chinese hospitals can be frustrating at times, they are not all bad. Last year I had a major accident in Guangzhou, which resulted in me breaking my leg, fracturing my knee cap, completely tearing two ligaments and meniscal cartilage damage. I chose to have the operation at The Third Affiliated Hospital of the Southern Medical University. This was a brand new hospital and the facilities were modern and clean. I was given my own private VIP room and the surgeons and doctors were excellent. Even the lovely nurses who had to stick needles in my bum were so friendly and happy. After I was released from hospital, three weeks later, one of the surgeons often came to my house to check on my leg and help me with some small stretching exercises.

I think for me, the way you are treated here comes down to speaking the language. Now, while I'm definitely not fluent, I can communicate quite well in Chinese. Sometimes this can make all the difference, and it saves you a lot of heartache.

Anyway...a year later and I'm happy to say that my leg has almost made a complete recovery and I still keep in touch with my new friends from the hospital.

Feb 24, 2012 20:56 Report Abuse



Great article.
I have a friend who went through an even worse scenario then this...
Living in Wuhan at the time, we went to Tongji hospital for all her regular check-ups because it's supposed to be the best.. also the most expensive for some things. But she had a regular doctor seeing her there and she felt comfortable. On the night my friend had gone into labor, naturally she got the taxi to Tongji, the hospital she had known and trusted. When she got to the hospital they waited half an hour before telling her there were no beds available. Ok, fine. So they get her in the ambulance and take her to another hospital where she is told that she must have a C-section because the baby became tired.... her plans for an uncomplicated, natural birth were thrown out the window :(
So I want to say, good luck to you or any pregnant ladies in that final leg of the pregnancy and be prepared for anything!

Feb 24, 2012 20:49 Report Abuse



Also annoying that people are standing around while the doctor talks to you about the most private things.
"Oh you are going to wait in the door because you are next?"

While waiting in the waiting area I heard the doctor talking to a woman whom was pregnant for a second time and she was all worried but didn't want to have to have an abortion.

Feb 24, 2012 19:40 Report Abuse



I enjoyed reading this article,yeah i can feel your pains,one of the worst thing in china is going to hospital,it's a nightmare.....Renminbi hospitals.....this is how chinese call it

Feb 24, 2012 18:43 Report Abuse



giving birth in toxin-laden Beijing? why bother. find somewhere clean!

Feb 24, 2012 09:18 Report Abuse