Celebrating 1 month in Hong Kong with a lifetime of public healthcare

Today marks a whole month in Hong Kong for Sam and I. Naturally, I decided to mark the occasion by contracting an incredibly painful ear infection and dipping my toe into the public health system of Hong Kong for the first time.

It started a few days ago and grew from something I was moaning about to something worth moaning about. On our month anniversary in Hong Kong I decided to persevere and go into school anyway on the compromise that we would get a taxi from the station instead of the usual battle for a seat on a minibus and walk up three flights of stairs in morning humidity. This was a terrible idea. Not only did the rain make the demand for taxis sky rocket, but it was the first day of term for the local schools so the queue for taxis was, frankly, quite silly.

I was not in the mood to walk. We waited for a taxi. I quickly discovered that I was also not in the mood to wait for 40 minutes in the heat and this was made all the more clear by the taxi ride lasting a mere 5 minutes. We genuinely could have walked there and back twice in the time we spent waiting.

Arriving at school I realised that this was a terrible idea. I was not well enough to be in school and so I did what every self respecting adult does and I went to the school nurse. She inspected my ear and sent me to the hospital, stickerless and not a lollypop in sight…

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I was comforted by the familiar look and smell of the hospital. Everything was helpfully written in both Cantonese and English which reassured me that this process would not be intimidating. As a proud holder of a Hong Kong ID card I’m entitled to access the public health care system without limitation. You’re required to contribute towards the cost of your care though treatment is subsidised by the government. I sat down in front of the triage nurse who looked expectantly at me and I asked for an appointment.

“There is only a male gynecologist on duty is that okay?”

I was confused by her response. Assuming I’d either misheard or that this was some sort of disclaimer she was required to make before I’d even told her what was wrong with me, I nodded.

“Did you test for pregnancy yourself?”

Again confused, but assuming this was a broken English version of the regular questions asked by triage nurses about the possibility of being pregnant I replied in the negative. This time it was her who looked confused.

“So maybe we should make a test for you to check?”

Now I was starting to worry I’d come to the wrong desk. Had I walked into a maternity ward of some sort? I looked at the sign again and it said outpatients. I was definitely in the right place. “No thank you” I politely declined. She was further confused by this. We both were. At this point I had no idea what was going on. I could only hear out of my left ear because of the infection so I wondered whether I was completely mishearing her words. She was still looking at me with an incredulous expression so I tried to clarify the situation. I was still yet to tell her what had prompted my visit to the hospital so I thought this would be a good place to start.

“I think I have an ear infection.”

She remained confused.

“So, wait, you are not having a baby?”

Once this issue was cleared up she happily gave me a ticket (of course!) and sent me to “vital signs” which seems to be a secondary triage where you have your weight, blood pressure etc measured. The nurse here didn’t speak English though this wasn’t an issue, right up until I couldn’t explain to her that my right ear was in too much pain to have a thermometer inserted into it and she did it anyway.

She took my ticket and exchanged it for another ticket (Hong Kong really thrives on “take-a-ticket” systems). I was directed to the waiting room where I had barely touched the seat before I was called in. The doctor spoke perfect English and quickly diagnosed my ear infection, he told me he would prescribe some medicines and asked me to wait outside. A few moments later a nurse emerged from the treatment room.

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“Excuse me, please tell me if you are pregnant, the doctor need to know.”

I’m really not sure why everyone in the hospital was sure I was pregnant. I was wearing what I had thought was a fairly flattering maxi-dress.

She emerged once again brandishing a prescription which I could collect conveniently on site. There was a list of four medicines on the prescription all of which I reassuringly recognised as available in the UK. I felt quite satisfied to have my pain validated by such a long list of medicines. If you have to have four different medicines it must be really bad right? All the moaning and moping I had been doing had been completely justified.

I smugly presented my prescription to the pharmacist who gave me – what else? A ticket.

After a few minutes my ticket number was called by the cashier and I was able to pay for the medicines. Predictably, the cashier exchanged my ticket for another ticket. My ticket was called for the 4th time since arriving and after being asked by the pharmacist if I was pregnant (him too!?) I was given my sack of medicines.

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Good haul.

The whole process had taken less than half an hour. Walking out of the hospital I couldn’t help but think about how grateful I am to have access to such great health services. As an Irish citizen I have benefited from the public health service in Ireland, the UK and now Hong Kong. Public healthcare is a valuable resource which should be protected at all costs. With the junior doctors in the UK currently facing the imposition of a contract which is both unsafe and unfair I fear for the future of the NHS.

In Hong Kong I am fortunate to benefit from employer funded private healthcare which is incredibly reassuring, but more reassuring is the fact that I can rely on the public system to keep me safe and healthy. I hope this remains the case in the UK too.

Finally home, medicine in hand, I was relieved to be able to get some rest, and luckily it turns out our apartment is designed perfectly for a duvet day of rest and recovery.

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