Going abroad to get well

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-8 19:38:01

Ailing foreigners travel to China for cheaper, better healthcare even as local expats bewail inadequacies

A growing number of foreigners are traveling to China to receive medical treatment. Photo: IC

As soon as Winnie Moth (pseudonym) landed in Tianjin from Denmark last July, he and his family immediately jumped into a cab and went directly to the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital, hoping to get his medical treatment as soon as possible.

The 50-year-old mechanic found out he had rectal cancer from his family doctor two weeks before he came to China. When he tried to get an appointment for further tests at a local public hospital in Denmark, where he has insurance coverage, Moth was told that the earliest opening was two months away and the private hospital that could take him within two weeks was too expensive.

"I didn't think my condition could wait two months, and the chemotherapy in private hospitals would cost around 300,000 Danish Krone ($43,620). It's too much for ordinary families like ours," he said.

Moth explained that he found out about hospitals in China through a cousin who worked for a Danish company in Tianjin. "He told me that he knew some foreigners who received cancer treatment at the hospital in Tianjin, and the results were pretty good, plus the fees were acceptable."

After doing some research online and talking to some patients who received treatment at the facility, Moth decided to travel to China to treat his cancer. He received treatment, surgery and chemotherapy in China last year and his cancer is in remission.

Moth is one of many foreigners who are traveling to China to receive treatment for illnesses that would either be impossible or too expensive in their home countries.

Some of the patients are even from developed countries like the US and other European countries. Although there are no statistics on how many foreigners are coming to China to get medical treatment, Guo Zhi, director of the Intervention Department at the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital, said that the hospital on average receives around 50 foreign patients per year, half of them from developed countries, and the other half from developing countries.

"Other major hospitals in China are also receiving an increasing number of foreign patients seeking treatment for serious conditions, especially in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region which share a border with other countries," he said.

Metropolitan got in touch with some foreigners who traveled to China, some local expats, and some experts to dissect the state of healthcare in China.

Faster, cheaper and more advanced medical facilities are three key factors driving China's emerging medical tourism industry. Photo: IC

The more cost-effective choice

Some foreign patients come to China to get medical treatment because they can get treatment faster here, and the cost is much lower compared to Western countries, Guo said.

After Moth arrived in China, he checked into the hospital immediately, and the doctors started to run panels on him in no time.

"On my seventh day in China, I went into the operation, and the surgery was a success. Then I stayed in the hospital for 15 days for further recovery and medication," Moth said.

"The whole treatment process was really efficient. Also, the treatment only cost around 50,000 yuan ($7,790). There is no insurance to cover the fees, but it was totally acceptable," he said.

Izabela Sokołowska-Boulton from Poland, a 32-year-old former professional dancer, also traveled to China to treat a tumor in her spine in 2009.

Boulton had her first two surgeries in Europe. However, the surgeries didn't stop her condition from deteriorating, and the tumor started to spread to her stomach and lungs.

"The doctors in Poland said that I only had a few months to live," she said. "My family also tried to contact doctors in the US and Europe, but they said they could only offer more chemotherapy, and most of the hospitals wouldn't even accept me in my condition."

"I came to China on a gamble after I got to know a patient in the same condition who was treated successfully at the hospital in Tianjin," she said.

Boulton contacted the hospital and got a "very quick" response. "They said they would try to help, at least decrease my pain." 

She said the doctors tried a myriad of treatment regimes including immunotherapy, gene therapy and even freezing the tumor and that after three months of treatment, she was well enough to go home.

"The cancer wasn't completely removed from my body but it is under control now, and I can just take the medicine in Poland," Boulton said. "The hospital in China offered me more medical options than anywhere in the world and they were willing to try when doctors in Western countries wouldn't."

While not able to return to her career as a dancer, Boulton said she still lives a rich life and gave birth to her second child eight months ago - something that would not have been possible without the aid of the Chinese doctors.

Boran Userbayev, 65, from Kazakhstan, went to a hospital in Xinjiang to treat his lung cancer last month.

"We considered three options, including treating the disease in our country and going to Germany," Userbayev said.

"We finally chose the hospital in Xinjiang because compared to the hospital in our country, Xinjiang is 50 years ahead in medical technology. And while we can get the same level of medical treatment in Germany, the price is almost 10 times higher," he said. "The medical treatment I received here is very good and efficient. I received surgery on my 7th day in the hospital, and it was very successful," Userbayev said.

Room for improvement

Although some foreign patients are satisfied with the medical treatment they received in China, some have had some unpleasant experiences. One thing they are dissatisfied with are the long lines due to the enormous volume of patients queuing to get access to a doctor.

"We got up at 5 am so that we could get an appointment in the morning, only to find more than 100 people were already queued up at the hospital door," said Peter Baker (pseudonym) from the UK.

He had accompanied his girlfriend to the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing two years ago for a kidney infection.

In the UK, if you have a minor problem, you would go to a small clinic that has general practitioners who give you the relevant medicine or advice. You only go to a hospital when there is a big problem. That way hospitals stay less crowded, and there is less risk of catching a serious illness from another patient, Baker said.

Most foreigners also haven't gotten used to receiving their medicine via intravenous (IV) drips which is a common practice in Chinese hospitals.

"My girlfriend was prescribed three days of IV drips, while my sister in the UK who had a similar problem just got antibiotic tablets," Baker said.

"IV drips are not good for people's health, and, while getting them, you have to sit in a room full of other ill people, increasing the risk of infection."

Rogan Roberts, a 44-year-old from the UK, complained that the amount of time Chinese doctors spend with their patients is too short.

He said he visited the Wangjing Hospital of CACMS (China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences) for an eye infection last July and the time he spent in the line waiting to see the doctor was more than 30 times longer than the actual consultation time.

"I waited in line for one hour, but the consultation time only lasted for two minutes," he said.

"In the UK, the consultation time would last at least 15 minutes. They would explain what's caused the problem and what to keep in mind to avoid a recurrence."

Medical treatments in China, trending now

Cai Qiang, founder of Saint Lucia Consulting, a company that brings Chinese patients to foreign countries to get medical treatment, said there is a small but growing trend where foreigners travel to China for medical treatment.

He said in a July 2014 CN-healthcare.com report that his company plans to bring foreign patients to China.

In the report, he mentioned that Asia is becoming a center for medical tourism around the world, and as the biggest country in Asia, China has a huge potential in the industry.

"For patients from Western countries who have lower income or don't have insurance, coming to Asian countries like China means that they can get the same kind of surgery at a tenth of the price," Cai said in the report.

Zhao Yan, vice president of Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, who has studied and worked in the France for over 10 years,  said that in terms of medical technology, China is already up to international standards.

"The medical equipment and technology that Western developed countries have, Chinese hospitals have them as well," Zhao said.

"And because Chinese hospitals receive more patients, due to our country's large population, they have more hands-on experience than the doctors in Western countries. Some of them even have a better surgery technique. For example, in France, a doctor may do four surgeries a month, but Chinese doctors will perform four surgeries a day," he said.

"There are good hospitals and bad hospitals in every country," Boulton said. "Chinese medical technology is developing rapidly. As long as you research the hospital carefully and talk to doctors thoroughly, I think getting medical treatment in China is a good choice."

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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