What Waiting Lines? (Another Observation from Across the Pond)

I recently moved to Dundee, Scotland where my husband accepted a job. It’s hard to say what will happen to healthcare reform now that the process has dragged on and the insurance companies have poured money into protecting their shareholders. It is, however, fairly certain that any reforms — if there are any at all — will not remotely resemble the British National Health Service (NHS). Yet, that hasn’t stopped special interests groups and conservatives from maligning the NHS. Since arriving in the United Kingdom a few months ago it’s been clear to me that most people who argue against healthcare/health insurance reform by using the British system as an example are, at best, exaggerating or misinformed. At worst, they’re lying.

  A few weeks ago I was suffering with a sinus infection and so I got to test the NHS for the first time. I was already registered with a General Practitioner’s office which is, more or less, the same concept as having a primary care physician with an HMO except you can choose just about any doctor’s office because they’re all in the same system. There’s no worrying, “Oh, crap. I just switched jobs and the family doctor who has known me my whole life isn’t in my new network.” Never mind the bigger concern, “Oh crap. I’m sick and I’m unemployed and I can’t afford the doctor at all.”

  In order to register with a GP, I chose the medical practice I wanted, filled out the usual paperwork, and then met with a nurse who took my height, weight, medical history, family history, diet, etc. Appointments were plentiful and the nurse had ample time to answer my questions. The following week I fell ill with what I knew to be a sinus infection because they’ve plagued me my entire life. After more than a week of suffering I finally called the doctor’s office and I was offered a same day appointment for that afternoon. I left my office at 3:00 for the 3:20 appointment. The doctor saw me, on time, at 3:20. He listened to my symptoms, looked in my ears and throat and five minutes later I was out the door with a prescription. Around the corner at the pharmacy they asked if I was paying for the prescription. “Yes,” I said. I was nervous because I was waiting on a paycheck and couldn’t afford a big bill for the prescription. “Right, that’ll be  £4.” Roughly $6.50. They filled my prescription in about five minutes and I was back at my desk by 3:40. I’m told that the whole experience isn’t unusual.    

Without a doubt there are bureaucratic problems with the NHS. The Brits love to make fun of it in the same way we joke about the IRS. There is a reason why my employer offers supplemental private insurance for things like — wait for it — dental care, but they also pay in a year what American small businesses pay in one month for employee health insurance. The supplemental insurance is offered as a perk, not as necessity. Our taxes are also somewhat higher, but that’s not exclusively because of healthcare and, quite honestly, I don’t notice the extra taxes impinging on our quality of life. However, the Brits are genuinely baffled and a little offended by the way their healthcare system is depicted in the United States. It’s not perfect, but they also wouldn’t exchange it for the American way of doing things. Here, healthcare is a public good rather than a commodity and I can already feel the difference. My stress free trip the doctor’s office in Scotland reminded me of what it is to be a patient, not a profit center.