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Private Clinics Become Trendy in Health-conscious China

The public has mourned the deaths of several celebrities over the past few months, including artist Chen Yifei, scientist He Yong, comedian Gao Xiumin and actor Fu Biao.


All of them died at the peaks of their careers.


Their deaths were a wake up call for younger people who shun precautionary health measures.


Chen Wei is different, however. Although he is only in his early-30s, he goes for regular check-ups once a year. Two years ago, he started to go to specialized medical centers instead of hospitals.


Private centers are profitable businesses and charge much higher fees, generally about 1,000 yuan (US$123), in comparison to 300 to 400 yuan (US$37-50) at regular hospitals. Chen says that his major concern is not price, however, but quality service.


Chen admits that he is under enormous pressure as an employee at a private company, and he has to work long hours everyday.


"Check-ups give me peace of mind. If I can't guarantee my health, I can't earn enough money," says Chen.


He says that check-up results are a great way to monitor his health. They allow him to identify potential problems earlier and treat existing ones immediately.


In Beijing alone, there are about 500 private health centers, and most of them are privately operated or funded by foreign investment. This provides a range of options for people like Chen who are dissatisfied with hospital service.


Quality service


He has had check-ups at several places, including the Ciji, Meizhao, and Huazhao health centres. Chen says the biggest differences between regular hospitals and private clinics are their attitudes towards patients.


At private centers, he feels much more respected and the process is more private and comfortable.


At general hospitals he is just one of many patients, and he says there is a greater risk of infection from others.


When he arrived for his most recent check-up at the Huazhao Health Centre, Chen was ushered into a small private room, where he answered about 100 questions on his daily living habits as well as personal and family disease history.


"A lot of these questions are very personal," he says.


He was given privacy, however, and he only needed to answer "yes" or "no" for each question by touching a computer screen.


In the examination room, he was asked to change into a gown and slippers. The change rooms are specifically marked by gender, and small slots with curtains in the women's room further ensure privacy.


A digital screen in the waiting room displays the names of patients and departments. A computer system maintains an even distribution of patients between different departments and minimizes waiting times.


Chen and other clients wait their turn on comfortable sofas.


Chen could not eat breakfast before his blood test, and he was hungry by the end of the first round of examinations. The nurses led him to a dining hall where food such as hamburgers and vegetables was on offer.


"The whole check-up was smooth and easy," Chen says.


Medical experts from large hospitals in Beijing later analyze the exam results and personal histories to come up with detailed reports.


Chen got the report in a few days, with the offer to follow up with the experts if he had any questions.


The rising popularity of private health clinics in recent years is not a coincidence, according to Li Xiuchi, director of the Huazhao Health Centre.


Centers and hospitals


The former director of the outpatient department at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital is now a member of the China Health Education Association and the China Healthcare Association. Li was happy to continue her health management career after she retired last year.


"Health check-ups give healthy people the opportunity to monitor their health. The service in regular hospitals scares off a lot of these patients," she says.


Zhou Chen, who owns a private company in Beijing, says that inconvenient and complex procedures in hospitals have turned her off medical check-ups.


"Only hospitals offered health check-ups in the past, and they weren't convenient. You were rushed through the whole process and you had to run upstairs and downstairs between different departments," Zhou says.


"You don't really think about quality service when there is no competition."


She first heard of private clinics from her friends last year. She went to a few centers to see for herself.


"I never imagined that health check-ups could also be enjoyable," she says.


"It's like going to the hair salon, except that in the same amount of time, I walk away clearly knowing how healthy I am."


Like Chen, Zhou sees check-ups as a good investment. Fashionable clothing or expensive facials might cost her 1,000 to 2,000 yuan (US$123-246) as well.


"Sometimes I got bored with my clothes just a few days after I buy them. For the same price, however, a check-up can save me a lot of worry," she says.


More than 98 percent of check-up patients in hospitals are sent by their companies, which purchase the services as an employee health benefit, according to Li, who worked at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital for more than 20 years.


Many people feel that check-ups only scratch the surface and younger people in particular do not take them seriously. It is common for companies to book appointments for up to 300 employees at a time, but often only two-thirds actually show up.


Physical exams in hospitals are usually done in large groups, so individual needs are seldom addressed, causing people to lose interest in check-ups, according to Li.


Some large hospitals in Beijing, such as Peking Union Medical College Hospital, have now set up new, independent screening centers to satisfy increasing demand for quality health services.


Healthy people do not need to wait these days. They can now choose between different check-up packages.


"In the past, we neglected the needs of people in groups, but now we emphasize more individualized services," says Lou Huiping, deputy director of Peking Union Medical College Hospital Health Screening Centre.


"We can arrange immediate appointments for patients who need immediate, advanced treatment."


Increased awareness


Most patients at the new private clinics are in their 30s. "When I was in 20s, I never thought about my health," says Zhou Chen.


By the time she reached her 30s, however, she noticed that her friends were talking about their health more. They would complain about high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and fat. She started to think more about her own body.


Liu Jingbao, 32, was a sales manager and often traveled on business to different cities. He felt physically weak and less energetic than before. These new concerns started interfering with his job.


Liu's friends generally have the same troubles. Like Liu, most of them now choose convenient private clinics.


"After a check-up, I feel much better about my health. I know about potential problems and the doctors offer good suggestions," he says.


People in their 30s and 40s are generally under a lot of stress. They work hard to support their families, which can be both mentally and physically taxing.


"They need to take care of themselves," says Li.


Despite the increased health awareness, not all have embraced the check-up trend.


One client at Li's clinic arranged for his parents to have a check-up. The elderly couple later tried to avoid coming as scheduled. They argued that it was a pointless luxury.


"They were wrong. People really need to take care of themselves, regardless of their age," Li says.


Modern preventive technologies can detect diseases, such as hypothyroid cancer, breast cancer, and cervical cancer. These problems can be treated with higher levels of success if discovered at earlier stages.


People with high blood pressure can also live normal lives if problems are identified and treated earlier.


Chen Wei often talks to his friends and family about the importance and benefits of a regular check-ups.


He says he will take his entire family next time he makes an appointment.


(China Daily September 13, 2005)

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