The UK's National Health System

I just finished some rare rest and relaxation over the weekend playing bridge with some friends in Oakland, California (for the record, 42.5 rubbers with a few slams and one grand slam that was made but not earned).

Over the table we started discussing the decline in rational discourse over the years. It seems that in the quest for attention, every discussion rapidly devolves into personal attacks and rhetoric. I’ve been a victim of this many times when trying to start a discussion of open source software, but my experience pales compared to what I am seeing in politics.

I don’t know why this seemed less in the past. Perhaps the media did a better job of calling it out and making people stop. The hot topic du jour is the debate over government sponsored health care in the US.

A great example of the problem was illustrated by my favorite news anchor, John Stewart. He contrasted video of Glen Beck trumpeting that “America has the best health care system in the world” with video from a little over a year ago where Beck experienced that system and was, shall we say, considerably less than satisfied with it.

It’s worth a look.

One health system that is commonly trotted out as an example of what not to do is the one in the United Kingdom. Now this blog is not the place to discuss health care but I felt that, as one of the few Americans who have experienced the British NHS first hand, I should relate my story on something that could “end democracy in America as we know it”.

I live in rural North Carolina and there are lots of deer around. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see three or four, and as a consequence I am exposed to a number of deer ticks – little disease carrying, blood sucking insects.

While I take steps to minimize this exposure, I still manage to get ten to twenty ticks bites a year. They’re no big deal – more of a nuisance really – but I do keep an eye on each bite just to make sure everything is okay.

In the spring of 2006 I got bit by a tick, removed it, and forgot about it. A few days later I found myself in the UK to do some work on OpenNMS. One morning I noticed a large, target shaped rash around the tick bite, which is a classic symptom of Lyme disease.

Being the digital age, I took a picture of it and e-mailed it to my physician back home. He replied that it was definitely Lyme disease and I needed to get a prescription for antibiotics. Since this requires a doctor’s involvement in the UK, I had to ask my client to help me get an appointment.

Now, this was about 11am on a Thursday. They made some calls and I was given a 1pm appointment at the local “surgery”. Since I wasn’t covered by NHS insurance, I was told I’d have to pay the “consult fee” out of pocket, which was £60, about US$100 at the time.

I walked in and was asked to sign a piece of paper with my name and address on it. That was it. I was ushered into an examination room promptly at one and the doctor arrived immediately after that.

She asked me to take off my shirt and in an instant recognized that the rash was due to Lyme disease. Then she asked if I would mind if she had the medical student look at it, since the New Forest, where I was, does have deer and the very rare case of Lyme disease. I had no problem with that and when he came in, he got excited and asked if he could take some pictures. I said “sure” and while he went to get his camera, the doctor got on the phone to call in the neighboring physicians. After the photo shoot and doctor parade, she even asked if the triage nurses could come in and take a look.

I was very patient through the whole thing and as a reward they waived the fee. They said it was the most interesting case they’d had in six months. I got a prescription and had it filled around the corner at the “chemist”.

I’m telling this story for two reasons. First, I like to joke that I once got paid $100 to take my shirt off (and for those of you who have seen me you realize why this is funny). Second, I hope this story will help counter some of the fear, uncertainty and doubt being spread about the whole issue of health care and specifically attacks aimed at the NHS. I found the whole experience as pleasant as one could expect, and on par with, if not better than, my average trip to the doctor in the US.

I can only imagine what a foreigner without insurance would have to go through in order to get similar care here.

3 thoughts on “The UK's National Health System

  1. The Glen Beck thing was pretty funny, although I think the thing that really takes the cake that I’ve seen lately was the article from Investor’s Business Daily that was quoted as saying:

    “People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless,”

    Yep, that’s British born and raised (and currently still living there) Stephen Hawking they’re talking about. His response was to say:

    “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”

    At some point I just keep hoping that the press will start calling people on the lies they’re telling but after reading this I’m guessing I’m going to be waiting for a long time. 🙁

  2. On a side note, we co-opted the term “death panel” during the bridge marathon this weekend. It was a term used to designate an especially strong dummy, as in “I’d hate to have to lead into that ‘death panel'”.

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