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Recently, I was hospitalized and treated for an early form of cancer. I am grateful beyond words that the outcome was completely successful. Now, a little more than a month after the surgery, I look back and can’t believe how everything seemed aligned in my favour. I think it was a miracle of timing, place, people, science and faith.

The whole experience was yet another steep learning curve for this Canadian expat in Hong Kong. This blog post gets back to one of the original intentions of Moving East Blog, which was to provide information to anyone thinking of undertaking a major relocation.

Hong Kong has a mix of public and private health care. As a Canadian who is used to a somewhat maligned public-only healthcare system, it is interesting to see how the two can operate conveniently side by side. Chinese medicine is also a big part of medical practice here and is recognized by insurance companies. It’s probably a good thing there is this much choice in a region of eight million people.

My experience is limited to HK’s private healthcare system. Here are a few of the things I learned along the way.

  • Healthcare in Hong Kong is generally very good, both private and public. The system is modern and has a good reputation worldwide. Of course you hear the occasional horror story, but you really don’t have to worry about standards if you are hospitalized or getting treatment in Hong Kong.
  • If you are moving for a specific job/employer, make sure you get a thorough orientation about your healthcare insurance coverage. If one is not offered, insist on it. The last thing you want to deal with when in a stressful medical situation – or worse yet, in an emergency – are insurance issues or concerns about what is covered and what is not.
  • Hong Kong has its own system of healthcare provision and it takes time for newcomers to learn it. Find someone who will give you the time you need to walk you through options, explain what happens if you do or do not use a clinic on your insurance company’s list, where you can access services such as scans and blood tests, where you should buy drugs, etc. People familiar with the system assume you understand it, but I found it hard to pin down specifics until I actually got into it.
  • If you have certain tests done annually in your home country, be sure to take your latest films or reports with you. When you get those same tests done again in your new home, the lab will need your previous results for comparison. And … it will be easy to do this, but don’t procrastinate about doing those annual tests after you move. I nearly did and the outcome would have been completely different.
  • When you are dealing with insurance companies in Hong Kong, be prepared for real challenges with the language. While the person at the other end of the phone will be helpful and courteous, more often than not their English is simply not good enough for you to explain fully what you need or for them to answer clearly. After several conversations with our company, I finally did a call through a Cantonese-speaking friend who acted as a translator. When it comes to healthcare issues, you don’t want to take a chance on being misunderstood or misunderstanding.
  • Little known fact for many foreigners in Hong Kong: When you look at different room rates for hospital stays, you will likely say to yourself “Well, there isn’t much difference between a semi-private and private room. I’ll just treat myself to private”. Your insurance may even entitle you to private coverage. But what they don’t tell you is that ALL services increase in price with each different price category. The three general categories are standard, semi-private and private. Costs will vary 30% to 40% from one category to the next, so you are paying much more for the same surgery, antibiotic and bandaid if you are in a private room. Thank goodness an expat friend told me about this because I would never have known – it’s not publicized because it’s just the way it is here. I even visited the hospital admissions desk to ask about this specifically, and indeed: costs can double going from a standard to a private room. I didn’t ask about costs for the VIP room.
  • How was the food, you are wondering. Well, it was pretty good because it was all ordered through “room service”! Private hospitals here offer menus from which patients order what they like, when they like. No trolleys clattering down the hallways with trays of jello and cold peas here! My hospital (Adventist) had a vegetarian-only menu from which I could order pastas and healthy juice boosters and tofu every which way. Patients, and their guests, literally call “Room Service”, just like in a hotel. And just like in a hotel, it’s added to your bill!!
  • And speaking of bills … As a Canadian used to “free” healthcare, I cannot describe how totally weird it feels to have to provide the hospital with a deposit on arrival and settle the bill when you leave. Some insurance companies have arrangements with specific hospitals; you give them your magic card and it’s all taken care of. But if you don’t have an assigned hospital or you have your surgery in a hospital of your choice, you have to pay the bill then submit the paperwork to your insurance company afterwards. Yuck. It’s time-consuming and easy to make mistakes or miss a form or signature or chop (they use those here). It’s also a bit stressful because there’s always a nagging sense of unease about what exactly will be covered. Stay on top of the paperwork and get some help with it if you can.
  • Note to Canadians and anyone else out there used to the public healthcare system: your healthcare is NOT free. Pay your taxes and quit grumbling.

I chose to reach out to a large group of family and friends in Canada and elsewhere to let them know about my situation. It was hard going through this so far from home without that safety net. I am deeply grateful for all the messages of support I received, including some through this blog from people I haven’t met. It helped make me feel less alone and safer somehow. Thank you!

I’m now well on the road to complete recovery. I feel very blessed and ready to face the next adventure on our Hong Kong journey.