My experience with socialized medicine.

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!

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17 Comments

  1. Ian says:

    Well, I’m French and I’ve been living in London, and I have two things to say. First, English doctors working with the NHS are amongst the worst doctor I’ve ever seen. They are nearly unable to make a proper diagnostic and just want you away as quickly as possible. And secondly, the price you have to pay to go private and receive proper medicine is absolutely shameful.
    Back in France, where the socialized healthcare system sure costs a hell of a lot of money to the state – therefore to the people – you choose your GP, who is most of the time very very well trained and able. You do have to wait, sometime, to see the doctor but most of the time you can have an appointment on the day you call for it. And if you can’t move, he’ll come to you when he can, but again, it’ll be during the day you’ve called sick. You have to see your GP first and he’ll send you to a specialist if you obviously need it, free of charge. There are some specialists you can go to freely, and yes, sometimes the wait is quite long, but never when there’s emergency involved.
    So basically, it costs a lot, but it works. And as far as I am concerned, that’s what matters the most. What I don’t get with the on-going American debate is that people seem totally unable to realize that socialism isn’t communism, isn’t a restriction of liberties; it is just sympathy and solidarity towards those who can’t afford a totally private, hugely expensive right for health. Did capitalism changed people into selfish bastards that easily? I hope not.

  2. Kerstin says:

    You’re absolutely right – socialized medicine does work. Yes, we sometimes have longer waiting times, and yes, it can take a two appointments to get things sorted.

    I’m not the biggest fan of the NHS in terms of my most recent experiences, and I grew up in Ontario with OHIP. But you know what? I can go back again and again to the doctor and make sure the problem is sorted out. What’s more, I walk out of the hospital maybe a pound poorer (my saintly husband waiting for me deserves a soft drink).

    I remember a rather long wait with injured campers at a summer camp in the Catskills about ten years ago. They were in pain, but waited hours to be seen. In the US. At a private hospital.

    As you said, no system is perfect. However, for the thousands of people who are uninsured in the US, facing a major illness with the added burden of putting food on the table seems much, much more “evil” than waiting a month for treatment.

  3. i don’t know if those ‘long’ waiting times are any longer than in the US. When my husband got in a car accident we waited in the ER for 5 hours before they glued his head back together and sent us on our way.

    It also can take months here to get an appointment with a specialist- that is, if you have insurance to pay for it, and if they take your particular insurance, and if you first get referred and pre-approved by your health insurance. And then it’s months before the first open appointment.

    And things aren’t necessarily sorted out here either- my best friends husband (With health insurance) has been in and out of the hospital for years with severe digestive tract problems and the doctors still can’t figure out what’s wrong with him.

    I finally just added my husband to our health insurance last week ($3300 a year, which is over 10% of our yearly income) so maybe now he can get asthma medication so I don’t have to hear him wheezing every night. He went the last 2 years without health insurance and it’s been a nightmare, worrying all the time, and whenever anything happened he kept deciding not to go to the doctor becuase we couldn’t afford it- so he has a big scar where he should have gotten stiches, and thankfully nothing worse happened.

  4. Chavi says:

    Wait, I know this is unrelated, but do you have a British accent!?

  5. hadassahsabo says:

    chavi – you need to ask other people who know me…

  6. Tamara Eden says:

    I have had Kaiser medical care for all my life, including being born there, with the exception of a few years. My husband grew up in Quebec (Hull/Gatineau) and lived some of us adult years in Ottawa. Since he’s been here in the states he says he is beyond impressed with my Kaiser care. I’m fortunate since I’m a teacher, the insurance is phenomenal. What’s funny is, many people think Kaiser is the worst!

    At Kaiser it can take a month or two to get in with your Primary Care Physician. A regular physical or pap can be hard to schedule too. Basically, routeine care is a longer wait. So, you learn the system and plan accordingly.

    I avoid the Emergency Room at all costs. First, they don’t necessarily take first come first served because some emergencies are more dire than others. And frankly, that’s how I feel it should be. If I come in with a sliced finger bleeding everywhere and there is someone ahead of me with something less serious, I’d hope they’d prioritize. Again, one can learn to work this system too. For example, I have asthma and allergies. If you’re super sick with coughing and such; you simply say it’s hard to breathe and you’re wheezing and you become higher in priority because asthma is no joke. I have not been to an emergency room in many many many years.

    At Kaiser you can also get triage or urgent care appointments. If you call early in the morning, they can give you a walk in appointment. You are given a general time to come but again, based on severity you might wait, but it’s in a nicer office and it’s not the emergency room. This is where you tend to see little kids with severe coughs, colds, etc who couldn’t wait a month to see their doctor. Sometimes they will say there is nothing but if you insist, they seem to find something. The problem is not everyone knows how to insist, I know how to work the system to best suit me so far. Here’s an example.

    Earlier this year I had a real scare. I was at work and at the end of the day my face felt funny. My tongue had been sort of numb for a couple days so I wasn’t sure what was going on . I looked at my face in the mirror and realized half my face seemed paralyzed. FREAK! I called Kaiser and they said they had no urgent care appointments available that I should go to Emergency. I was upset and told them that this was absurd as if I was having a minor stroke waiting in emergency was horrible. I told them, PLEASE, I can go anytime today just see if you have ONE doctor who has an opening. I was put on hold and had an appointment 40 minutes from the call. It ends up I just had a case of Bell’s Palsy and am fine now.

    Ok, so my point? I’d say that waiting is normal. Even with Kaiser where it is not socialized medicine. There are no perfect medical systems; but there are ways to make it more fair and equal so that all tax paying people can get basic care if nothing else. The one thing my husband has said is very different here vs. Canada is that, with my insurance coverage, prescription coverage is far better. Not many people realize that socialized medicine does not include prescription coverage unless your job provides that. My husband takes a medicine that was costing him about 125 a month in Canada. Here, his prescription is a 3 month one and costs us a co-pay of 10 bucks!

    At this point, I would prefer my Kaiser care to socialized medicine but like the above commenter, I think a little wait, although frustrating, is worth other people in need also getting care.

  7. Tamara Eden says:

    sorry that was so long

  8. Z! says:

    What i think is being missed in all this debate on health care is that the real trouble is with the insurance companies.
    What the govt needs to do is cap the amount of damages that can be sued for in malpractice suits. This way the Doctor’s insurance will be lowered, our private insurance fees will lower because we’ll not have to help pay the Dr’s insurance and more money will go toweards proper care- not ridiculous lawsuits!

  9. Lady Lock and Load says:

    If a person is discharged from the hospital on shabbat isn’t it allowed for a non-Jew to call a cab to bring you home? Especially for someone who is not feeling well?

  10. hadassahsabo says:

    Lady LnL – probably, but i was in no position to ask anyone the shailah, because i was stuck in the hospital ALONE…and had no clue whether or not i could have someone call a cab for me.

  11. Lady Lock and Load says:

    You poor thing, that must have been quite an ordeal. One friday night my hub went to the emergency room via ambulance and we spent six hours in the hospital and then they said we could go home. The non Jewish doc called a cab for us to take us home (my hubby puking the whole way home into a bag I “thoughtfully” brought along). We paid the cab after shabbat, what an experience, so weird to be in a car on shabbat.

  12. Leora says:

    Thanks for sharing the experiences, Hadassah. You really do have a good perspective, having lived in 3 countries.

    I almost never have to wait for health care. My experiences in both the Boston area and Central New Jersey have been good in terms of care. In Boston hospitals, my parents did experience waits in emergency rooms because of no bed available, but the care was adequate. In general, the best way to deal with U.S. health care is get yourself an advocate, either friend or familly member, who can help make a case for you if you need care.

    I have been able to get good care because I live in a country where I make enough money to pay for what I want. I hope the government doesn’t tax away my money so I can no longer afford to choose my care and choose education for my kids (which at this point is more expensive than my health care). I fear higher taxes.

  13. tesyaa says:

    “I have been able to get good care because I live in a country where I make enough money to pay for what I want.”

    Leora, I’m in a similar situation b”h bli ayin hara, but what about those who are not? Not everyone has mazal in parnasa, even here in NJ.

  14. Leora says:

    Yes, you are right, it would be nice if there was enough money to go around to take care of everyone’s needs. But passing a bill that would endanger the economic health of the country is not going to help anyone in the long run.

  15. hadassahsabo says:

    the truth is that whatever system is used there are going to be people who feels it does not work well for them. it is impossible to be able to meet the medical needs of every single individual at every single minute. no system can achieve such perfection!

  16. batya from NJ says:

    i am concerned about socialized medicine here in the US b/c it’ll most likely raise our taxes & result in longer waits for important procedures which my parents in canada have been dealing with for 33 years-ever since they moved to canada in ’76. i know that taxes in canada are higher than they are here on most merchandise (b/c you pay for the GST & PST which amounts to around 15% extra on most purchases). here in NJ, the taxes on items are 6% & in NY i think 8.25% but it’s still much less than the 15% you pay in canada. just my 2 cents although socialized medicine will cost way more than 2 cents certainly in the long run. i prefer the HMO system that we have EVEN THOUGH my husband & i pay a fortune for the premiums b.c we are a small business. in addition, we pay the copays etc but i still think that we are better off then if we were to have socialized, government controlled health care.

  17. Z! says:

    At least with the private insurance companies there is someone watching them- the Govt. If the Govt takes control- who watches them?

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