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How I learnt to stop paying doctors and love the NHS

October 11, 2011 1 comment

I come from a country that does not have an NHS, has never had an NHS and is very unlikely to ever have a medical system that functions adequately, never mind a bloody NHS.

To see a doctor in my old country costs about fifty euros. Some will recount tales of a local doctor who only charged forty, some will bitch about the bastard who charges seventy. Doctors can do that if they want to. But fifty euros is regarded as a standard sort of cost to see a doctor.

If you are unemployed or on benefits, you can obtain a wonderful thing called a medical card, which means you will not have to pay fifty euros to see a doctor. If you have a job, regardless of other circumstances, regardless of the fact that you have three children under ten, you will, in general, pay fifty euros for each and every visit to a GP.

So the first child starts to leak bodily fluids on Monday – off to the doctor to provide your first donation. Ten minutes to get a prescription and hand over the money, then off to the chemist to pick up the medicine and hand over another twenty.

Because children are inherently contagious, the second little bugger has come down with the same thing within twenty four hours. Back to hand over another fifty and pick up another prescription and exchange it in turn for another twenty. This is fun. Guess what happens next? With relentless inevitability, the third, feeling left out, runs a fever that gives the kettle a run for its money and off you go again. Hurrah. Two hundred and ten euros.
Funnily enough, when you get sick yourself you decide you’ll self-medicate. Possibly with arsenic. From the Journal of the Bleedin’ Obvious comes research that indicates these charges can put people off seeking medical advice.

A few years ago I was back in my old country and I went to the doctor. I didn’t bring cash with me. At the end, the nice gentleman asked me for fifty euros or so – I explained just as politely that I only had a card and that more to the point would be leaving on a jet plane that very day with the distinct intention of not returning for some time. He was suitably baffled. There was no cash point nearby and he did not take cards. I did have about thirty euros in my pockets and foolishly confessed as much. He agreed, with what I think was embarrassment for me and my faux pas, that this would just have to do under the circumstances.

There is an argument that it could be worse, that it could be America. This is true. You will not die in Atlantis because you cannot afford a much-needed operation. On the other hand, you might die of old age waiting for a hospital bed, because the Irish health system has many things, but it does not have hospital beds.

I’ve told you about going to a GP, now let me tell you how hospitals work.

They don’t.

In promising news, hospital treatment tends to be relatively affordable. From this article comes the line: “Everyone living in the country, and visitors to Ireland who hold a European Health Insurance Card, are entitled to free maintenance and treatment in public beds in Health Service Executive and voluntary hospitals.”

Or they would if there were beds. But the national bed crisis shows no sign of letting up. This article casually references the endless saga of how many people exactly were ‘waiting on trolleys’ quite recently (Four hundred each day, for those trying to postpone RSI). Although I’m not certain, I believe they were physically on the trolleys in question during their wait. When things are busy, people also wait for trolleys. On chairs. For hours. There are stories of waiting for chairs too, but if I get into that, I fear people are going to mistake this for satire. You see, this isn’t a Monty Python sketch. This is a country’s health service, relied on by people when they’re ill.

As a result of all this I love the NHS. Seriously. I would pledge allegiance to the NHS any old day of the week. If they make up a song about the NHS, I will dutifully stand to attention and sing, although I cannot promise it will be in tune. And no one has ever made me stand up even close to an anthem without enduring my near-endless whining. But for the NHS I think I could do it.

 Having come from its mathematical opposite – a place so afraid of a non-existent Red Menace that a pitiful attempt to introduce free healthcare for children in the fifties was condemned as Socialist Medicine and quashed by the bishops – I am permanently amazed at the thought of a world where we can all just go to the doctor when we’re sick. Even if the day we happen to be sick is the day before payday. We don’t have to decide between getting that thing checked out and paying the gas bill this week. It’s been eight years and I still think this is bloody great.

After the second world war, the US and the Soviet union chose to invest in the space race. It pushed the boundaries of what we thought we could achieve. It went to the moon.  Britain did something different but no less extraordinary; something as unimaginable, as aspirational and inspirational. Britain chose national health care, free at point of service. If you have never known anything else, you will never understand what that means. I hope you never do.

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