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“Ni Hao, I’d Like to Buy Some Medicine”

Living as an expat in China has many challenges. From the culture shock to drastic changes in diet, we all face many difficulties in our daily lives while trying to embrace life in China. The language barrier seems to be a very significant problem, but once we do learn the basic ni hao and duo shao qian, daily chores tend to become easier.

However, language becomes a larger issue when it comes to communicating at pharmacies. Falling ill is only natural. Whether it’s a minor flu or something more serious, getting sick could happen to anybody and the need for medicines becomes inevitable. In China, pharmacies tend to be marked with a green cross and can be found quite easily, especially in bigger cities. Although finding a pharmacy might be easy, it might not be as easy to find one with English-speaking staff.

What makes this whole ordeal more challenging is the fact that basic every-day Chinese will only get you through the door, but will not help you specifically communicate what you need. In other words, a little knowledge of medical terms in Chinese would go a long way. Since most of us do not learn the language in this capacity (unless you’re studying medicine), our only option is to rely on translators and dictionaries.

Fortunately, many medicines have at least the generic name printed in English on the box, but the ingredients, dosage and other information are usually all in Chinese. It is quite uncommon to find the same brands of drugs you’re used to buying back home, so it is necessary to look for their Chinese equivalents. Although the names are different, these Chinese over-the-counter drugs are quite similar to those found in Western countries.

If your illness is not serious enough to warrant a doctor’s attention, walking into a pharmacy and describing your symptoms proves to be an effective method of obtaining the right medication. However, if you have any particular allergies or other such issues, it’s probably best to consult with a doctor first. Once you do find the medication you need, it’s often a good idea to bring the box with you next time you visit the pharmacy.

Prescriptions in China are filled in the same way as in most other countries: you need to take the prescription from your doctor to the pharmacy and then purchase your medication. In most cases, the pharmacy will be inside the hospital, making the process a little easier. Chinese pharmacies do not accept prescriptions from abroad. If you have a prescription from abroad, it would be best to take it to a doctor and get a new prescription made. If you are bringing prescription drugs with you while coming to China from home, make sure you keep the prescription handy in case questions are raised at customs.

If your illness does become serious you may need to seek a doctor’s attention. Hospitals in China, while crowded, tend to be quite organized. When visiting large hospitals for outpatient treatment, it is usually necessary to register and obtain a patient card as well as purchase a patient record (bingli). You must then approach the required department (for example urology, gynaecology etc) and then wait your turn to see the doctor. The wait can be quite long, but it depends on the time of day.

Doctors are generally patient, but they might not speak English. It would be a good idea to bring along a Chinese friend to help accurately communicate your symptoms. English-speaking doctors and staff are usually found in larger hospitals and hospitals which are affiliated to universities.

After being checked by the doctor, you may be asked to do further tests such as blood tests, ultrasounds, X-rays etc. There will be an additional waiting period for these tests as well. Finally, the doctor may prescribe some medicines in the form of oral medication or intravenous injections. The dosage of medicine may seem quite high, but do not be alarmed as this is not uncommon in China. Make sure you properly understand the doctor’s instructions.

During your stay in China, you may also come across Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacies and clinics. Many hospitals have Traditional Chinese Medicine departments as well. The system of Traditional Chinese Medicine is completely separate from that of modern Western medicine. From diagnostic methods to herbal treatments and acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine has withstood the test of time and these ancient practices are still used all over China even today. If you would like to get treatment at a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic, it would be best to bring along a Chinese friend to help explain the process to you. These treatments usually require several follow up sessions and regular changes in medication.

Overall, medical care in China is quite similar to that of other countries. The language barrier and careful communication are a few of the things one must keep in mind while visiting pharmacies or hospitals.

If you want learn some survival Chinese when you go to see the doctor, please take a look following videos:

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