This article aims to help expats to make well-advised decisions about where to go for easy, fast and trustworthy checkups for sexually transmitted infections or diseases in China.
China, the melting pot of different cultures where weekends can easily be spent floating between expat neighbor brunches fueled by avocado toasts, followed by nights at sky bars with the amazing vistas of a neon-clad city and massive bottles of booze. Who could foresee that the time of adventure is likely to lead its protagonist to the cold light of an STD checkup clinic reception?
The sad part – as each person who is familiar with the creeping fear that comes with a rash, sore, or itch can tell – is that we should have known better. After all, expats in China are an educated, HIV-vetted group of world citizens who besides a keen affection for craft beer, fixed gear bikes and kale usually share essential merits such as proficiency in Chinese visa policy and conversational Chinese (used for phoning kuaidi guys).
However, China’s map of sexually transmitted diseases can dampen the spirits of the wisest of men and women. The first big HIV epidemic quietly sneaked up among drug users in southwestern Yunnan province in the late 1980s and then spread among blood donors in central Henan province in the early 1990s. Despite government efforts to intervene as well as to ramp up sex education, the autoimmune illness has not died out but instead unfurled among a more liberal generation of youth. As expected, paid sex is one of the danger zones.
The point is not to demonize. Checkups should involve even the safest of players as well as those who exhibit no symptoms at all. Sexually transmitted infections may not show at the start but they may still turn into full-blown STDs. According to US government-backed CDC, no matter if condoms were used, girls active in the sheets should get tested each year for gonorrhea and chlamydia. This also goes for men who have sex with men and they should add syphilis tests to the list. All who are closely familiar with the walk of shame due to unprotected sex should test for HIV a few weeks after the act.
Some expats, however, may be held back in their healthy pursuits. Foreigners in China are rightfully afraid of the notorious Chinese blacklist of those who get diagnosed with HIV, syphilis and gonorrhea, which may ultimately cancel their visas, but the need for testing should overcome that fear. After all, in the list of priorities, having a luxuriously scratch-less and sore-less life should be placed before the possessing of a Chinese visa, right?
Red Pill, Blue Pill
Expats basically have two options with their STD checkups in China.
First, they can go to an affordable public hospital. Most of China’s level-three public hospitals in first and second-tier cities, including Shanghai People’s Number One Hospital in Hongkou district and Huashan Hospital in Huangpu, can get you set up for an STD checkup. Government-funded Shanghai Skin Disease and STD Clinic is one specialized option in the eastern megacity. All you need is an ID, an hour or so to spend, and a dash of sass to maintain your place in the winding queue.
Chinese hospitals offer the familiar set: blood tests for hepatitis B and HIV, as well as smear tests for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. These should cost about CNY400 (USD60). In addition to that, girls may want to get screened for human papillomavirus (HPV) which is so common that the CDC recommends girls in their twenties to get tested every three years. To this end, they may have to pay about CNY400 extra.
Once at it, women may also want to find out about how to skip this HPV testing part forever. An HPV vaccine just became available across China last year so women can find their series of three HPV jabs at local hospitals for about CNY800 each.
For guys, the affordable public hospitals come with a caveat. They often pursue the slightly painful method of a swab test to get you cleared out in terms of bacterial STDs like chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea. For some reason, Chinese hospitals just don’t seem to like urine tests. Other checkups are the usual blood tests.
Pros and Cons of Chinese Public Hospitals
The most gruesome part – or the best part – of Chinese public hospitals is their pure efficiency. Each step of the process is laced with a transaction and at the end of it, you might feel like the visit was short of smiles, but then again, you get what you pay for. In a couple of days or so you can come back to check all the results from a computer that will print your diagnosis (in Chinese).
This shows a regrettable threshold to go to a Chinese public hospital. They require a decent level of Chinese language skills in order to make sure that all the necessary points are communicated accurately.
How about reliability? This part is important. Expats should keep a cool head when they visit these medical institutions. Test results are likely to be trustworthy but the way to interpret those into treatment may vary. If the offered care plan starts to sound somewhat strange or get unnecessarily costly you may want to ask for a second opinion to make sure that you’re doing the right thing.
The reason is that, unfortunately, the Chinese medical system is beset with inadequate resources, which may shine through along each step of the way in terms of expertise, communication, attention to detail and the level of service offered.
What makes the credibility of service worse is that the bottom line of these institutions is that they make a big chunk of their profits by selling drugs. This is why it is always good to question whether all the prescribed drugs are necessary and find out as much as you can about your diagnosis by googling in the waiting room in order to have a good understanding of how it would be treated anywhere else.
The Second Pill: STD Checkup at an International Hospital
If you are looking for a service that is closer to what you would get in Europe or in the US, expats may want to check out international hospital chains, such as Parkway Health and United Family. These high-class institutions have many outlets in Beijing and Shanghai, among other first and second-tier cities. For men, one of the strongest selling points in these places could be that they can offer urine tests instead of swabs.
International clinics are great in terms of getting competent, high-standard care in English but pricing is admittedly high. Consultation fees start from CNY500 and costs for tests are likely to go beyond CNY1,000. An international insurance plan will pay off at this point, and according to our research, the only one that covers STD treatment in China, that is Allianz Care.
Another great thing about international clinics is that they spend the time to find out what’s wrong and make a comprehensive care plan, which unfortunately is not something to expect at the busy public hospitals which generally just send you home with a bag of medicine and let you figure out the rest.
The rationale of going to an international hospital basically follows that of the idiom ‘well-planned is half done’. Some of these infections may begin by looking like an ingrown hair, while others may be totally invisible from the outside so a hasty checkup does no good in terms of achieving control of the situation. One imperative should be that the problem cannot be put to sleep by ignoring it: even a symptom-less patient may transmit the disease to their partner. This is why it is good to be thorough when it comes to the STD checkup business.
The good thing about STD checkups is that they usually come with a happy ending: most of the diseases are treatable if found early. Doctors are likely to prescribe antibiotics against infections such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis, while virus-induced genital herpes usually requires lifelong antiviral medication. In order to keep costs under control, it is advisable to check out insurance plans that cover STD checkups and treatment.
Before getting back to the joyous expat life, it’s good to exercise caution and get your partner tested too. Love, after all, always protects, always hopes, always trusts and always perseveres – and not the least with itches that do not stop by scratching.