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Practical Chinese for Hospital Visits

(AKA The time I broke my elbow in China)

No one wants to get sick or have an accident, but it happens – and as a foreigner in China it’s always good to be prepared. Below I’ve recounted my experience of breaking my elbow in China, plus some practical language and advice for visiting the hospital. I just hope you don’t need to draw on any of it!

In November 2010, I dislocated and broke my elbow in the middle of the Hangzhou mountain marathon.
Just a short way into the race, I tripped on a tree root and proceeded to tumble down a rocky trail. Initially, I didn’t realize my elbow was broken. I wasn’t in excruciating pain and somehow the joint popped back with a bit of pressure so my elbow could bend and extend normally. After collecting myself and taking some 芬必得 / fēn bìděi (a brand of Ibuprofen), I continued tentatively and completed the 26-mile run with my friend.
Only the next morning did the discomfort and immobility hit me. As soon as I was back in Shanghai, the hospital visits began…

A quick photo during the marathon (I’m on the left, unaware my right elbow was broken)


Getting Treatment (3 hospitals, various opinions!)

Horrified that I hadn’t already seen a doctor in Hangzhou, my boyfriend took me directly to the international wing at 华山医院 / Huàshān Yīyuàn (Huashan Hospital). After registering and getting an x-ray, they sent me down to get a plaster cast (pictured below).

I’d never broken any bones before so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but treatment seemed pretty standard up to that point. Then, however, the doctor told me he was concerned about the severe nature of the break and that it might be best to do an MRI scan. I might even need an operation.


Back at work, my Chinese colleagues insisted I should get another opinion before doing any scans, and one very kindly went with me first thing the next morning to上海第九人民医院 / Shànghǎi dì jiǔ rénmín yīyuàn / Shanghai People’s #9 Hospital. It’s less “foreigner-friendly” in that there’s no English spoken and the facilities are more basic, but it specializes in broken bones. Once there, I had to register and wait among a restless crowd outside the doctors’ offices. Eventually we saw a doctor who had the kind of wizened lines on her face and matter-of-fact temperament to suggest she had had many years of experience working in public hospitals. She was great! After inspecting my x-rays she concluded that I should just keep the cast on for 6 weeks. All would be fine. I didn’t need an operation.

Having received that reassuring advice, I made a final stop at one of Shanghai’s international hospitals, Parkway Health, to get my plaster cast re-done, since the original one was not secure. The new cast was much better but then, exasperatingly, the doctor I saw at Parkway started talking about operations. I was so confused, and it was difficult to know who to trust. Did I need an operation or not?!

In the end I decided to just bring forward my Christmas trip home, where the UK’s public health service confirmed no operation was necessary. I had the cast removed after 4 weeks and started physiotherapy directly. It all turned out OK, and I was running again a month after. In total I spent between 5-6,000RMB, with all 3 visits, an X-ray, and 2 plaster casts. My insurance was very basic at that time, so I had to pay for it all out of pocket. However, it was quite reasonable considering (at least compared with medical costs in other countries, such as the USA).


I should mention that my tale is just one person’s and is not intended to be representative of all hospital experiences in China! Nonetheless, here are some conclusions I took away:


  1. Don’t go it alone
    Even if you speak perfect Chinese, go to the hospital with a Chinese-speaking friend. If you’re really in a bad way, you will need them to help you register and go pay upfront for any treatments and medicine (you will not be seen or treated until you have paid at the pharmacy).Besides this, in China, generally speaking, doctors & nurses practice medicine, while your family (or friends) are the ones who will get you food, take care of your general well-being and act as your advocate. At first this was a shock to me, but I have seen it in action and it works well in the Chinese context.
  2. Get a second (or third!) opinion
    It’s best to be wary of seemingly excessive orders for scans, tests and treatments. Do not blindly assume you actually need all these. It’s like anywhere in the world: get a second opinion and be confident before jumping into expensive treatments– this is where your Chinese friends are invaluable; they can help navigate for you.
  3. There are plenty of excellent doctors in China
    Despite the conflicting advice re. surgery, I did feel that the doctors I saw were all very competent. I would just stress that it’s worth considering China’s specialized practices, like I did at People’s #9 Hospital, rather than always going to a general practice. In a separate episode, I had to be treated for acute hyperthyroidism and I received excellent treatment at the specialized practice I visited. It was arguably less “foreigner-friendly” but I was in the very good hands of a doctor who genuinely cared about my recovery.

Useful Vocab & Phrases for Hospital Visits

English Hanzi Pinyin
I’d like to the hospital [in the taxi] 我要去医院 Wǒ yào qù yīyuàn
International Medical Department 国际医疗部 Guójì yīliáo bù
Accident & Emergency 急诊 jízhěn
Internal Medicine 内科 nèiikē
External Medicine 外科 wàikē
to register 挂号 guàhào
to see the doctor 看病 kànbìng
I have pain here… / I feel uncomfortable here 我这里痛…/这里不舒服 Wǒ zhèlǐ tòng… / zhèlǐ bù shūfu
I fainted 我昏了过去 Wǒ hūnle guòqù.
I keep throwing up 我一直想吐 Wǒ yìzhí xiǎng tù.
I have diarrhea 我腹泻。/我拉肚子。 Wǒ fùxiè./ Wǒ lā dùzi .
It’s been like this for [2] days. 我这样已经[两]天了. Wǒ zhèyàng yǐjīng [liǎng] tiān le.
I think my [x] might be broken/fractured 我想我的[X] 可能骨折了 Wǒ xiǎng wǒ de [X] kěnéng gǔzhéle
treatment 治疗 zhìliáo
to write a prescription 写处方 xiě chǔfāng
to take medicine 吃药 chī yào
pain killers 止痛药 zhǐtòng yào
antibiotics 抗生素 kàngshēngsù
IV drip 静脉注射 or 点滴
Jìngmài zhùshè or diǎndī
verb: (dǎ) diǎndī
plaster cast 石膏 shígāo
Take 3 of these pills twice a day for one week. 每次三片,每天两次,吃一周 Měi cì sān piàn, měitiān liǎng cì, chī yīzhōu.
x-ray X光
verb: 照X光
X guāng
verb: zhào X guāng
MRI scan MRI扫描 MRI sǎomiáo

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Sarah Soulié

Sarah Souli é is British and lives in Los Angeles, after six years in Shanghai working in online marketing within EdTech. She has been learning Chinese since 2008, and currently contributes to the Speak Up Chinese blog. Speak Up Chinese is a newly-launched service based in Beijing. Their mission is to help you speak authentic Chinese with confidence, through 1-1 and group online lessons.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. I had similar experiences, 3 different opinions from 3 doctors. I have no insurance as of now, I hope someone will do a comparison on different insurances for expats in China.

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