Saturday 31 August 2013

Tzu Chi Buddhist Hospital & Medical Care in Taiwan

Tzu Chi Buddhist Hospital, Hsindian, Taipei

I have a very low opinion of the conventional medical establishment, because, having being dominated by the all-powerful pharmaceutical corporations for over a century, I believe that its primary focus is on dispensing expensive and animal-tested (and often sourced) drugs to sick people, rather than encouraging people to stay healthy. I believe that with a healthy vegan diet (and vitamin B-12 supplementation, and perhaps vitamin D for those who don't get enough sunlight), and with adequate rest and exercise, most people should stay very healthy most of the time, including into old age, and only need to visit doctors occasionally. That said, it never hurts to have a check-up, and most people will need doctors (if only for advice) or dentists occasionally, and this post is for those times.

Taiwan has one of the world's best public health insurance schemes in the world, and while it has had some financial problems in recent years, it ensures that everyone in the country receives world-standard healthcare when needed. The compulsory health-insurace scheme is government run, and workers contribute different amounts according to their income. Most visits for simple ailments or illnesses are very cheap, and an hour or so's dental work generally costs a few hundred Taiwan dollars (under twenty US dollars).

In New Zealand, citizens pay for the national healthcare system through high taxes, however the standard is so low, and waiting lists for basic operations so long, that people often opt to pay for their life-saving operations or other procedures at private hospitals, and private health insurance is very popular for those who are fortunate enough to be able to afford it. In Taiwan, the insurance subsidy can be used at any hospital, so if one chooses to use a private hospital, the excess paid on the visit is slightly higher, but most is still covered by insurance. And I've never heard of waiting lists either.

I recommend Tzu Chi Buddhist Hospital in Hsindian (also Xindian), southern Taipei. The Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation (Wikipedia) (literally 'compassionate relief' carries out lots of charitable work in Taiwan and abroad. It boasts over 10 million members in 47 countries. A year ago I stumbled upon a centre in Kuala Lumpur underneath a vegetarian restaurant, where a visiting Taiwanese was delivering a lecture to a large crowd. They also hold a booth at the Tokyo Vegetarian Festival every year. While both groups seemed especially popular with Taiwanese residents, the group are very welcoming to everyone, and while I have never become involved in the group myself, doing so may offer a good opportunity to carry out meaningful charitable work around the world, and meet compassionate, like-minded vegetarians in the process. The organisation also runs educational facilities across Taiwan, and they also run a program to produce quality clothing from recycled PET bottles, which is for sale at a shop in the hospital.

An advertisement for Taiwan as a destination for medical tourism,
Shanghai Pudong Airport, China

The standard of medical care in Taiwan (perhaps especially at Tzu Chi) is in some ways very high: if you need a certain medical procedure you can expect to get it, from a well-qualified doctor, using safe, modern equipment, in good time. Doctors in Taiwan study from western medical textbooks, so they generally speak good 'textbook English'. Prices might not be as low as Thailand, but for the quality of care, Taiwan may be a possible destination for medical tourism.

Perhaps a reflection of the large population and efficiency mindset, while 'medical' standards are high (conventionally speaking), expect little if any support or interest in holistic healthcare, and a strong emphasis on prescribing drugs (perhaps even stronger than in western countries). Doctors seem to be obliged to prescribe something even if it's totally unnecessary (placebo effect perhaps, or pressure from pharmaceutical corporations?). I usually ask "What will happen if I don't take this?" and they say "Nothing - it's ok if you don't take it, but you still need to collect it before you pay and leave."

I once woke up with an itchy foot, which had a tiny mark, and I found a small insect in my room. A little worried, I took a photo of the insect and showed my foot and the photo to a doctor at Tzu Chi hospital. She didn't seem concerned at all, so neither was I. But she did write me a prescription, so as usual I asked if it mattered if I didn't take it and she said that wouldn't matter, and then sent me on my way. As I got up to leave, I said something like "Thank you. And by the way, just out of curiosity, what do you think happened to my foot?" Her reply: "I don't know. If you want to know that, you'll need to see a dermatologist." And then she began writing me a referral form to see a dermatologist (which I declined).

Vegetarian foodcourt, basement, Tzu Chi Buddhist Hospital, Hsindian, Taipei

Perhaps the best thing about Tzu Chi hospital is its all-vegetarian foodcourt underneath, including a large branch of the Minder Vegetarian chain (which I think is owned by the Tzu Chi foundation). Elsewhere in the hospital is a vegetarian Starbucks. Beware that, being Buddhist, many of the small restaurants use dairy products, so all fake meat should be assumed to contain dairy products. Also, don't expect doctors to be vegetarian (or members of the organisation at all), or not to prescribe drugs derived from or tested on animals.

Vegan options from Minder Vegetarian, basement foodcourt of Tzu Chi Hospital

There is also a Traditional Chinese Medicine section in the hospital, and TCM is also covered by the national health insurance scheme. While I have generally been rather cynical of TCM, I once stumbled upon a TCM clinic (not at this hospital) and didn't realise until I'd already paid and was about the see the doctor. I have to say that I was very impressed with their care (which was effective, and probably not placebo) but that's another story. My understanding is that most TCM doctors are also trained in western medicine. While it's probably not as bad as all the animal testing by pharmaceutical companies, beware that many TCM products are derived from animals (including insects) so it's important to specify you don't want these to the doctor.

My TCM experience: Keeping this herbal medicine-soaked bandage on all day, and going back to the clinic every evening to have it changed was a little tiresome, but it was certainly preferable to the massive dose of antobiotics I'd have been sure to receive from a conventional doctor.

 Tzu Chi Buddhist Hospital is about a ten minute walk from Dapinglin Station on the green (Xindian) line. Take Exit 1. The walk is not very pleasant, especially on a hot day, due to lack of functional footpaths and fish restaurants with live fish on display along the way. There is a regular shuttle bus from the station to the hospital, butI generally prefer to walk it than to share a bus with lots of sick people. There is a Starbucks outside Exit 1.

This Minder Vegetarian branch, a short walk from Tzu Chi Buddhist Hospital, was my first vegetarian restaurant in Taiwan (after a stall at the Gong Guan Night Market).

If you don't feel like dining at a hospital, another branch of Minder Vegetarian is within walking distance, and only a slight detour from the walk back to the station. It also has an all-you-can eat section upstairs. It's more expensive than the pay-by-weight option on the first floor, but not as elaborate (or expensive) as Evergreen Vegetarian Restaurant.

View Tzu Chi Buddhist Hospital (Hsindian) in a larger map

While you're in Hsindian, consider a trip up to Garden City to visit @Peace Cafe. It's in a much more beautiful setting than a hospital (even an all-vegetarian one run by a worthy Buddhist foundation) and there's no need to worry about what's in your fake meat: @Peace Cafe is run by disciples of Supreme Master Ching Hai, so is strictly vegan. Here is my blog post about it.

Pizza from @Peace Cafe (Summer 2012). It's well worth the trip up the hill while in Xindian.

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