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A Tale of Chinese Hospital Horror

Sunday, March 24, 2013 | By:

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In general, I am an advocate of Chinese hospitals. Some are grimy, some are corrupt and some could be used as the set for the next Saw movie, and, for female teachers, some examinations—and some hospitals for that matter—are downright horrific, bordering on draconian.

I recently accepted a job at The Family Learning House, a kindergarten located in Jianwai SOHO, Beijing which is Canadian founded. The school, however, is licensed as a wholly Chinese company. The school charges around $14,000 per year tuition and has around 200 students and 60 staff members. As with most kindergartens, the majority of the teachers are women and, as with all Chinese schools, all of these women are forced to have a yearly gynecological examination.

A few weeks after I started working at The Family Learning House, I was given the name of the hospital and told to be there at 8am on a Wednesday.

I am Australian and I receive free healthcare back home. Whenever I am in Australia, I go for a full check-up, gynecological exam and complete blood panel. I am also a foreigner who lives in China, so I go to the government Entry-Exit hospital near Xierqi in Haidian District for a comprehensive, working visa medical check almost yearly. Having gone to the visa hospital just a week before, I really wasn’t sure why I was being asked to go to a second hospital. The HR woman at the school told me that it was a government requirement, so I went along, prepared to do the medical check again.

Upon arriving at the hospital, (after the crowd) the smell was the first thing to hit me. The whole place stank of a filthy toilet.

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This is not entirely surprising because the available bathroom was conspicuously missing soap—or the soap dispenser.

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I was being accompanied by a 25-year-old Chinese girl who had been a teacher at the school for several years. This was not her first time at this hospital but it was time for her yearly check-up; she efficiently guided me to the registration line. After waiting with about sixty or seventy people for a check-in number, we pushed our way upstairs to line up again to have a nurse sign us in and print our forms. The first things I noticed on the form were the words “Gynecological Exam”; my blood froze.

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I took note of the filthy floors, the unwashed walls, the hundreds of people in line, the overwhelming stench of urine and realized that they wanted me to open my legs for them in that same hospital.

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I was terrified and resolved to refuse the exam when it came time, prepared to do everything else on the list, including the x-ray and blood tests.

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After paying the 150RMB fee, we got in line for the blood collection. After waiting in a queue of at least one hundred people, it was our turn at the window.

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There were three nurses behind glass as if they were working as bank tellers. Patients walk up, stick their arm through the window and they take two vials of blood.

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As we approached I noticed they never changed their gloves. Person after person was stuck with a needle and the nurses used pens, computers and cotton-ball blood swabs without a change. Then I saw that one nurse was not wearing gloves at all and the second had torn hers—hanging from the wrist as she used her bare fingers. I then saw the basket of needles sitting on the counter between the nurses. The needles with their attached tubes for drawing blood were unwrapped and not in sterile condition. In the basket were hundreds of needles and tubes wound together, with only a small rubber tip on the end of each needle. The nurses would reach in without their gloves, grab a needle and untangle it from the mess, then insert it into the next patient.

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At this point, I was wondering if the needles were reused; the conditions of the hospital were so bad that I was not willing to put my health at risk. I told the other teacher that I had to leave and walked out of there as fast as I could. I sent an email to the principal of the school and to several other staff explaining what I had seen and why I would not be doing to the medical exam. The following day I was told that I would lose my job if I refused to go back and have the vaginal exam as well as the blood test and x-ray. There was no way around it, and I would not be permitted to have the exam performed at a hospital of my choice.

Population monitoring is common in a country which places restrictions on the birth rate. Women who work at schools as well as civil servants are given blood tests, x-rays and vaginal exams every single year. In Beijing, there is only one hospital in each district where women are allowed to have this exam conducted. The hospital for Chaoyang district is The Chaoyang Maternal and Child Care Health Center (朝阳区妇幼保健院), close to the Panjiayuan Antique Market south of Shuangjing.

I spoke to several foreign women who work at branches of Etonkids, a chain of bilingual and international kindergartens in Beijing. One teacher says that she decided to do the vaginal examination at the Chaoyang district designated hospital because she was told it was her only option. She was not happy to do the exam but was told that she would not be able to work in a classroom without it: “It was explained to me by the principal and nurse of my school that when teachers sit on the same chair as children they can pass any STDs they have to the children.”

The teacher I spoke to was swabbed with a q-tip by a nurse not wearing gloves. Several people were in the room with her waiting for their own examination as well as a long line streaming out of the open door. After the exam was finished the nurse whipped back the curtain before the teacher had time to even put on her pants.

When I asked what disease they were looking which could not be determined by a blood or urine test, the Chinese principal of Family Learning House came to me with the Chinese name for trichomoniasis. This is an STD which can only be passed from the sharing of genital fluids, yet the principal insisted, as with the nurse at Etonkids, that this STD can be given to children if they sit on the same chair.

It was sad and somewhat terrifying. All of those teachers and government workers who are forced to do this every year without any recourse or dignity have no choice. I am able to walk away from a job knowing that I will find something else, but many do not have that freedom. The fact that they will only allow you to go to one, designated hospital hints at corruption (funneling money to specific government hospitals). Their goal is not to ensure health; it is to be able to keep records of who is married, who is sexually active, who is pregnant and other personal information. Even worse, the schools don’t care. They send their teachers to these places to be violated and shrug their shoulders at protests.

Writer’s Note: There is an affordable and convenient middle ground for healthcare in Beijing. Western friendly hospitals such as Peking Union and the Beijing Friendship Hospital offer a level of service and cleanliness which could rival that of any emergency room back home. There are dozens of government hospitals and private clinics where one can receive affordable and reassuring medical care in this city. I have never used medical insurance in China; I have lived here on and off, over twelve years and have used local hospitals for everything from motorcycle accidents to women’s problems.

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16 Responses to A Tale of Chinese Hospital Horror

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report


  2. Archie says:

    They’ve just built a huge hospital here in Nanjing.

    The toilets in every corner of the hospital are squat toilets. There is nowhere for a disabled person to lower themselves should they need to. There is no soap or soap dispensers in the toilets, nor is there a hand dryer or paper towel. You can wash your hands with the poor excuse for water that comes out of the taps.

    I’ve seen the exact same things. Gloves are worn because they are told to wear them. So they wear them all day, touching surfaces without changing them and going to the next patient with the same gloves used to assess the previous patient.

    I’m scared to go to hospitals in this country. There seems to be little understanding of hygiene and sanitation. And in a country where it is still the prevailing belief that colds come from not wearing enough clothes, and not from the spread of germs, that is kind of understandable.

  3. Joel says:

    Interesting. We recently moved to Qingdao and I started teaching at a preschool for the first time (previously I taught adults). My entry medical exams have been much like you described, though I didn’t notice any missing or torn gloves (they definitely the box of partially unwrapped needles). Several weeks after my entry medical exam last October, they said all the staff had to go for medical check-ups again. I’m the only male teacher in the school (about 20 teachers total). I complained a little bit about the redundancy and waste, but told them I was willing to do it if they needed me to. It was the principal, who simply wanted to avoid the expense and hassle, who got me out of it. I wonder if it would have been different if I were female?

  4. Me says:

    To all expats living and working in China. You do not have to do this bullshit. When working at a Chinese company you will constantly be asked to do shit like this. Here is what I have learned. You can’t ask to not participate because they will always cite some non- existent rule or law which says you must. “It is company policy.” You do know there is no policy in Chinese companies right? That would take organization.

    But there is good news. Your Chinese boss does not actually give a shit if you go or not. It is just that if you look for permission, his knee jerk reaction is to say no. That is just the Chinese way. They will never just be considerate and say ok even if it will not affect them at all. If they do something nice for you then they lose face. Luckily there is good news. You can just say ok to everything they ask you to do and then just not show up. Then you are the one who loses face (who cares since you are not Chinese.)

    This has worked time and time again for me. Never ask. Just do what you want. As long as you don’t bother your boss with this bullshit he/she will not care. You will never be fired. For them to care, fire you and find a replacement would take more effort and they are lazy. I have yet to see what it takes for someone to get fired in a Chinese company.

  5. David says:

    Here in Hefei you see the best and the worst. Last time I went to a hospital it was better than any I’ve seen around the world (and I’ve been a lot of places). Others… well, they’re more like what you encountered.

    I used to hate the mandatory health check but one of my co-workers got an early diagnosis on a potentially serious illness and told me: “Hey, it’s free and helps you spot stuff that might’ve killed you.” Which is true.

    Last time around I got sent to the gyno room and told to put my legs in the stirrups (I’m a guy; that’s not normal). Then after seeing the worried look on my face (and waiting about 30 seconds) the nurse just laughed and said, “I’m joking, you can go.”

  6. Patricia Matos-Puente MD says:

    The first American-Chinese joint venture hospital in China is the Beijing United Family Hospital, with branches now in several large cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. The main hospital in Beijing, located near the Lido Hotel,is accredited by the International JCAH. The staff (nurses and physicians) speak English, with many of the physicians coming from the US and Europe. The hospital was started by a long time American resident of Beijing, who felt that western women in China shouldn’t have to go home to have their children. The hospital and clinics are beautiful and clean and most westerners should feel very comfortable with the care they will receive in this hospital.Beijing.ufh.com.cn

    • kodabar says:

      Ah, the Beijing United Family Hospital. An expensive, elitist hospital designed to separate wealthy Westerners and Chinese from their money.

      “The staff (nurses and physicians) speak English, with many of the physicians coming from the US and Europe.”

      Almost all the staff come from China and even among the very few from the USA and Europe, it’s clear that they’re mainly Chinese too. Why not visit their website and enjoy the many broken links?

    • Phil says:

      All

      I have been here for 20 years and if a medical check up is required I always use a company Ciming. They are Chinese but operate to Western standards in most cities in China. They perform NO treatments, so their comprehensive medicals are pretty straight down the line as they have no invested interest in making you sick so they can profit from it. You just get a plain medical report which can be taken to your own doctor.
      Drink plenty of Whisky and you will be fine :)

  7. Patricia Matos-Puente MD says:

    The Beijing United Family Hospital is a world class American/Chinese joint venture hospital system, with hospitals in several major chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. THe staff speaks English, the physicians come mostly from the USA and Europe, and the facility is clean and beautiful. It is accredited by the INternational JCAH. beijing.ufh.com.cn

    • Phoebe says:

      Unfortunately, The Beijing United Hospital has put its prices at such a ridiculously exorbitant rate that 99% of Beijing residents, both Chinese and foreign cannot afford to have such a luxury. That hospital is disgustingly expensive and elitist.

  8. P. says:

    How much did the WOC pay you for these amateur insights? This article would have been ten times better if it was reduced by, say, 800 words and you actually posited something useful.

    So you’ve lived in China for 12 years and are still offended at different standards in health care. Oh, you.

  9. Jenny says:

    A tale of Chinese hospital horror…and a blog article that is not up to the standard that I am used to from TWOC. This one should have stayed on a personal blog site instead of pulling TWOC right down a Chinese hospital toilet drain :(

    And by the way, as a foreign woman, you CAN (and should!) opt out of such a ‘requirement’.

  10. Al says:

    Interesting article. A few things were quite striking:

    “Whenever I am in Australia, I go for a full check-up, gynecological exam and complete blood panel.”
    – That’s something I will never understand and will never support. Why would anyone have gyn exam alongside with hear overall check-up? What’s so special about the genitals? Why not heart exam, lung exam, brain exam, bowel exam, joints exam, eye exam, liver exam, kidney exam or anything else? This approach hurts all of as in the long run. Because for as long as we have millions of such brainwashed women on this planet who think that their genitals require extra special medical attention, we will have ob/gyns ruling our lives, we will be coerced into pap smears and pelvic exams at every doctor visit, and we will have a completely different degree of respect for patients between men’s and women’s health care.

    “I saw that one nurse was not wearing gloves at all and the second had torn hers — hanging from the wrist as she used her bare fingers.”
    – I saw an Australian doctor putting his fingers into a patient’s bleeding open wound without gloves on or even washing his hands! After that, all the attempts to complain about this malpractice to Australian medical authorities ended up with nothing: the medical bureaucrats were only pointing fingers at each other. If Australia allows that, what to expect of China?

    “Their goal is not to ensure health; it is to be able to keep records of who is married, who is sexually active, who is pregnant and other personal information.”
    – Considering the lack of anonymous health care services, Australian medical system clearly doesn’t want to be far behind China. Patients’ medical records are much easier disclosed to the government authorities than to the patients themselves.

    “It was explained to me by the principal and nurse of my school that when teachers sit on the same chair as children they can pass any STDs they have to the children.”
    – If that was true, we all would have a whole bunch of STDs after just one trip in public transport! One truly has to graduate from a medical school to come up with a stupid explanation like this!

    • Sam says:

      @ Al

      Totally ridiculous. “Brainwashed women”!? If anything the world needs more people who are educated about their bodies and get regular checkups. The genitals are exposed to disease and anyone who is sexually active should be getting regular checkups. Many STDs are not symptomatic and the lack of education, safe sex and regular testing means that in the USA there are 110 million STD infected people with 20 million new infections every year. In 2010, there were 1,031 new cases of HIV in Australia. Education for prevention is important, so is testing to prevent the spread.

      PAP tests find cervical precancer before it turns into cancer. In the US, In 2009
      12,357 women in the United States were diagnosed with cervical cancer.3,909 women in the United States died from cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among women. I am disgusted that you would come here to dump all over a woman for taking care of her body in a sensible way. You are a joke.

      This story is not about men’s health, it is a personal story of something which happened to this girl. Nowhere does it say that men’s health, heart disease or anything else you mentioned is any less important than genitals.

      • Les says:

        Sam, show me the evidence from peer reviewed medical journals that regular health checks prevent diseases and deaths. The Nordic Cochrane centre actually found no evidence that mortality rates are lowered by preventative medicine. In fact they found it only led to overdiagnoses. Furthermore there were never any randomised controlled trials to show that pap smears lowered the death rate of cervical cancer.The rate has always been low in developed countries and the rate of cervical cancer was dropping before screening was introduced (google Angela Raffle). Do some serious research from scientific journals instead of just parroting crap you read from pro screening sites.

      • Al says:

        @Sam
        If all those unnecessary medical genital inspections were truly about STDs, how come men are never forced into such exams? I liked this article, and I liked how the author wrote it, but I do disagree with this one point, because the popularity of “bikini medicine” is harmful to most women. No one stops you from checking your genitals if you wish, but gynaecological exams should never be compulsory, and STD problem should not be only women burden. Women are not getting STDs out of thin air, most of it comes from men.

        As to “cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among women”, this is a piece of utter misinformation popularised by the medical workers and bureaucrats who benefit from pap screening. Cervical cancer is not the leading cause of death among women, never was, never will be. It’s not even in the top 10 of most common cancers. Please check proper statics and true fact before stating such things. Wast majority of Pap smears are unnecessary and harmful. Read the research and latest studies that have not been sponsored by the cancer screening money-making machine.