Healthcare in China - A Guide for Expats

Liz Smith
Liz Smith

Liz Smith left the daily grind in the States to travel the world with her husband. Eventually teaching English in China & loving it, she began sharing her experience with others who are interested in embarking on this new adventure!

 / Oct 5, 2017

Healthcare in China is an important factor of consideration for expats, or anyone who is thinking of living and working in this world’s most populous nation. Therefore, if you are an expat living and working in China, or if you are about to move to China, then it helps a great deal to understand the Chinese healthcare system and the options for getting healthcare in China.  In this guide, we will outline the various options that expats have when it comes to getting medical care in China. 


An Overview of Healthcare in China


Medical care in China is offered in public hospitals, private healthcare facilities and international hospitals. Some public hospitals have international wings. Considering the vast nature of the country, the quality of healthcare and medical care costs obviously vary significantly between different cities across China. While there are some foreign workers in China who still seek treatment in various public healthcare facilities throughout the country, a good number of them opt to seek treatment at various private facilities. 


Public healthcare in China - While the country’s public healthcare system can best be described as inconsistent, there are numerous public hospitals in all the Chinese cities that offer various medical services. In rural areas however, residents can take hours or even days to get to the nearest clinic. The country’s public healthcare system is largely considered substandard, though treatment vary widely from one facility to the other. 


Seeking treatment from public healthcare facilities is definitely not the best idea for expats, thanks to long queues, slow services and the language barrier; all of which make it difficult for western expats to get proper treatment like the one they are accustomed. Further, the quality of medical care offered in many public hospitals is not per the Western Standards. 


Expats seeking treatment at public hospitals should expect to experience a few quirks. However, most public hospitals especially the ones located in bigger Chinese cities have international wings - which are meant to offer public healthcare with Westernized standards of medical care. Unlike in public healthcare facilities, international wings don’t have the usual long queues and long waiting time. Better still, they offer greater focus on affordable treatment costs and quality customer care. 


Private healthcare in China - there are numerous private healthcare facilities that offer high standard treatment to expats and other foreign patients. However, the high standard and specialized treatment offered in Chinese private healthcare facilities come at a high price, which is normally double that charged at public hospitals. International hospitals are largely viewed as the hallmark of the country’s public healthcare system. These hospitals offer treatment and medical care services that meet international standards. Though expensive, these hospitals provide high quality care and unmatched professionalism that is similar to the one Western expats can expect to get in their respective home countries.


How Can Expats Living in China Pay Less For Their Medical Care?


Medical care in China can be costly for expats considering that most of them turn to private healthcare facilities, since treatment here is far better than it is in public health facilities. Having health insurance is the surest way you can cover your medical costs whilst working in China as an expat. While nearly all employers in China provide their employees with a health insurance plan, you can buy an individual insurance policy that will meet your medical care needs. 


Health Insurance Coverage For Expats 


For most expat workers in China, health insurance is mostly provided by their employers. Further, Career China also offers health insurance packages for our job candidates, if the schools / companies hiring those candidates don't offer a competitive package.  Having an insurance plan in China is a great way to maintain a safety net in case of a more serious injury or sickness that requires more expensive medical care. As an expat, it's also good to consider an insurance policy that includes coverage for medical evacuation (which can be extremely expensive).


What Are The Common Types of Health Insurance Available For Expats in China?


In-patient coverage - this is the most basic aspect of any healthcare plan that everyone in China ought to have, irrespective of their fitness, age and health history. It covers in-patient care, where a patient is admitted into a hospital for life-threatening scenarios such as viral diseases, car accidents, poisonings as well as other costly conditions. Most in-patient coverage plans have maximum cost limits, including services such as medical evacuation and medical repatriation. There are some in-patient plans that cover repatriation of expats’ remains whereby their remains are sent back home in the event that they die overseas (a bummer to think about...but an important consideration). The average cost of an in-patient plan is approximately 5,500 RMB (minimal coverage) to about 20,000RMB ( maximum coverage).


Outpatient coverage - this coverage constitutes up to 85% of all healthcare insurance claims. It basically refers to treatment that doesn’t need a hospital admission that exceeds 12 hours. This coverage takes care of treatment of minor ailments such as common cold, to surgery and long-term diseases such as cancer and diabetes. The coverage you get with out-patient coverage largely depends on your individual plan. In China, out-patient plans can only be bought when existing in-patient coverage is in place. Most plans cater for medical practitioners, specialists, vaccinations, prescription drugs and diagnostic testing. 


Will Travel Insurance Pay For My Medical Bills?


While most foreigners use their travel insurance to pay for their medical bills if they fall sick whilst in China, travel insurance will not cover your medical bills upon becoming a resident of the country-that is, once you secure a job with a Chinese employer or become a fulltime student. In essence, travel insurance only covers you while you are traveling...not when you are living / working.  So getting a job and a work visa in China will disqualify you from using travel insurance to cover medical costs.


Important Things Every Expat Should Know Prior to Purchasing Health Insurance 


Having healthcare coverage is crucial for every expat living and working in China. Below are a couple of important things you ought to know prior to purchasing health insurance in China.


Does the health facility you intend to go accept your insurance?


If you would like to receive treatment at a specific hospital or clinic, make sure they accept insurance from the insurer you intend to purchase your insurance from. 

Make sure all the medical services you want are well covered.


Whether you want coverage for therapy, vaccinations or traditional Chinese medicine, it is important to ensure the health insurance plan you are about to purchase offers coverage to the specific medical care services you are interested in. 


Waiting periods


Some health insurance plans have waiting periods in the sense that, coverage for specific services begins after a certain duration of time from the time you start paying for your insurance plan. Therefore, find out more about the waiting periods from your insurer to know when the actual coverage starts. This is necessary for avoiding any inconveniences. 


Reduce Your Expenses by Staying Healthy in China


As an expat residing and working in China, knowing your healthcare options is quite important. But regardless of where you prefer to seek medical care, the best thing is to always try to remain healthy when you can. For instance, do not drink from the tap anywhere in China.  Always drink bottled water.  You may be wary of eating some street food that looks of poor quality (although some street food is delightfully tasty).  In partiular, be on the look out for food that is sitting out in the sun, or has flies on it.  The golden rule is if you have a bad feeling about it, don't eat it.  You can also prevent some illnesses by getting some vaccinations before moving to China, such as Typhoid or hepatitis A. 


Other tips include being careful where you step - even sidewalks in China can have unexpected large holes (check out this personal blog post by our staff regarding their experience stepping in a hole and breaking a foot in China!). Also, keep in mind that people driving on the sidewalks in China (and parking) is a common occurance.  You should also watch carefully before crossing streets and be mindful when riding bicycles or motorbikes.  All of these things can help reduce the liklihood of you needing to visit a hospital during your time in China, and thereby reduce your healthcare expenses in China.


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Liz Smith

Liz Smith left the daily grind in the States to travel the world with her husband. Eventually teaching English in China & loving it, she began sharing her experience with others who are interested in embarking on this new adventure!