I grew up in the UK. I moved to Canada fifteen years ago. I have lived only in countries where socialized medicine is the norm, however I have had limited experience with the healthcare in the US of A.
As a young child living in south Wales, and as an older child living in NW London, I remember the doctor coming to the house to check on us when we had chicken pox or were ill with various childhood sicknesses. I remember going to the doctor’s surgery (as you say over here “doctor’s office”) for our vaccinations and getting a lollipop after. I don’t remember having to wait to see the doctor, but then I was a child. These things just didn’t occur to me to notice. There are family stories of sitting in waiting rooms and us kids making comments about the other people there, loudly, so we must have waited occasionally, but I really don’t recall it.
Under the NHS you didn’t really get to choose your own GP. Where you lived dictated your catchment area, and based on that, you were given a list of the nearest GPs who were accepting new patients. But doctors back then still made house calls, I am not sure if they still do. You had to call the emergency service, the nurse called you back, and you waited a few hours until the doctor came over. But at least if you were throwing up you didn’t have to sit in a waiting room of other people with their germs being breathed all over you, and breathing your germs over them. You were as comfortable as you could be in your own home.
If you needed to see a specialist you had to wait. Again I was a child, so I don’t remember how long, but I grew up knowing that if you didn’t want to wait to see a specialist on the NHS you could decided to go to Harley Street in London and see a doctor, privately, and pay through the nose for it. Going private was quick – but the damage to one’s wallet took a long time to heal. I had my wisdom teeth out privately – it cost me close to a thousand pounds, and this was 16 years ago.
My first real experience with NHS vs private healthcare was when I was 14 and unfortunately suffered from alopecia – my hair started to fall out. Imagine being a 14 year old girl and losing one’s hair!! Our GP was at a loss – if I remember correctly he just said it was stress and I should wait it out. My distress at losing my hair was so huge, that my mother decided to shlepp me to a specialist in Harley Street to get an expert paid opinion. He gave me a magic cream and the alopecia diagnosis, and helped us to feel better about the whole thing. His offices were luxurious, leather chairs facing the doctor. He took us into the office on time, and took time to listen to us. I remember his desk was more or less clear, and there was a relaxed atmosphere. A sharp contrast to the GP’s who are always rushed and barely have time for eye contact.
When I was 19 I had my first personal experience with the emergency room (called Casualty in UK) and surgery. It was Hoshanna Rabba and I woke up with a fever. I was sweaty and aching, vomiting, and my belly hurt really badly. We called the doctor who came over 4 hours later. He examined me, told us to go straight to the emergency room, he thought I had appendicitis. Once we got to the ER I was moved quickly into a cubicle as I could barely stand up straight. Once in that cubicle it took 6 hours for a doctor to arrive to check me out. Six hours of being in complete and utter agony and getting nothing for the pain because a doctor had to examine me first before anything could be prescribed for me.
It did go very quickly for me after that – I was whisked into surgery as Shemini Atzeret was starting, and don’t remember much till I woke up sans appendix. The nurses were very sweet, although the ward sister was so stereotypical – stern, and intimidating. I was at the Royal Free Hospital, which is a teaching hospital, so I was disturbed at least twice by medical students and their teachers. I cringed for the students who gave the wrong answers. They were publicly torn apart by the doctor in charge.
On Simchat Torah they decided I was well enough to go home. I explained to them that it was a Jewish Holiday for me, and I couldn’t go home until it was dark out. They said they needed my bed NOW and it was my choice whether I went home or not. I spent the remainder of the day in the Day Room where the TV was on, without pain meds. I had a prescription for the pain meds, but couldn’t fill it because I was still stuck in the hospital. The hospital’s lack of tolerance for my religious beliefs was terrible. Once they had officially discharged me there was no food for me either, and of course there was no way I could get food from the vending machines.
I guess you could say they did what they needed to do – they diagnosed the problem, they cut me open, removed the offensive appendix, closed me back up and sent me on my way. I healed fine (other than breaking my arm 9 days later, but that’s a story for a different day).
I moved to Canada a couple of years later. Their healthcare system is based on the NHS – no one has to have private insurance, but if you want to go private there is the option. I have become used to waiting 2 hours to see a doctor when I had an appointment. At a walk in clinic I expect to wait at least 3 hours, sometimes have waited 4. A friend of ours was told he needed a quintuple bypass – he waited 8 months for the surgery. He could have died in the interim! I needed an MRI for my back – the wait, if I waited for the hospital to give me an appointment, would have been 9 months. I was in agony – there was no way I could have waited 9 months. We paid the 600 dollars to have a private MRI done immediately. We had private insurance – we were lucky. Others who don’t have private insurance have to wait, in pain, until the hospital gets around to them.
The wait in Quebec to see a specialist is ridiculous. The ERs tend to be overcrowded because people cannot bear to wait 3 – 6 months to see a specialist so they show up at the ER prepared to wait a few hours just to be seen that way. It’s an abuse of the system.
When my son broke his leg we were told the wait in the ER would be six hours. They take patients according to the severity of their illness / injury, and it was a busy night. After 10 minutes of watching my child try valiantly not to complain but finally unable to hold back the copious tears, I muscled my way in to the nurses’ station and insisted that he be seen PDQ. They called us in 5 minutes later which was great for us, but means that someone else’s child ended up waiting longer than s/he should have. I had to advocate for my son – but if everyone tried to push in, bedlam would ensue.
Socialized medicine does work. When you need to see a doctor you can. If you cannot afford the medication there is a government program to help you with that. Every service is offered that you could possibly need medically – you just might have to wait for it. The hospitals are not in the best of conditions, and don’t always have the latest in technology. There is never enough money to go around and this leads to delays and cuts in service. But no system is a perfect system.
I don’t have enough experience yet with the US system to adequately compare, but I do have to say that it’s great not having to pay a co-pay every time I go to see the doctor in Canada, or every time the kids go. That can add up. The more I experience the US system, the more I will have to say on the subject. Stay tuned!