Contrasting emergency healthcare in Europe versus in the U.S.

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BoomerCafé Co-Founder and Executive Editor Greg Dobbs, himself a baby boomer, was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, recently on a TV news assignment … only to end up in an emergency room with a serious, life-threatening condition. The experience has given him a unique, first-hand perspective of healthcare in Europe versus in the U.S.

By Greg Dobbs

Greg Dobbs hosting television coverage of a NASA Shuttle launch.

When I’m sick, I want the world’s best health care as much as anybody. But I wasn’t real optimistic that I’d get it a couple of weeks ago when, on my way to shoot a television documentary, I suffered a significant amount of internal bleeding aboard an overnight flight. Collapsing twice after we landed from massive blood loss, evidently I almost died.

That’s why I’m ecstatic to report that my fears of inferior care were ill-founded. In fact I’m ecstatic to be around to report anything at all. But I am, and here’s one of the reasons why: an expensive and innovative (Israeli-designed) tool I had to swallow called the PillCam. 36 hours after launching on a fantastic journey through the length and depths of my digestive system, collecting almost 60,000 diagnostic images inside me to pinpoint the source of my bleeding, the PillCam successfully completed its mission.

The thing is, this 21st Century marvel wasn’t at the internationally-famous Mayo Clinic, or the vaunted Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, or the top-rated New York Presbyterian. No, it was at the big, battle-tested, National Health Service trauma center in Belfast, Northern Ireland called Royal Victoria Hospital, which I knew from covering the warfare in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s for ABC News.

Pillcam ~10mm X 25mm in size

Frankly, that’s why I had felt so low about what I faced. The Royal Vic was for victims of external bombings, not internal bleeding. What’s worse, I was being thrust into the hands of the cash-strapped budget-dependent National Health Service, and I would be hospitalized in the long-war-torn city of Belfast. I’ll admit, I was scared.

It wasn’t a perfect experience. I felt lost in the chaos of the emergency room. I had bloodlines spring leaks where they were inserted in my arms. I heard fellow patients around me screaming all night. And while recovering, I was presented with a couple of plates of food I wouldn’t pay for at a restaurant. But you know what? It’s a hospital. As a veteran of a few other life-threatening traumas, I’ve suffered the same at institutions in the U.S.

More important, just as I have in American hospitals, I had the high-tech procedures I needed when I needed them. Two angiograms, two endoscopies, CT scans, x-rays, a colonoscopy, and that tiny alien capsule that traveled through me, the PillCam. Some argue that in a universal healthcare system (which critics would call a euphemism for “socialized medicine”), you’ll only get urgent care if you have urgent needs. Well, about ten years ago when my back collapsed and I was reduced to crawling around my house with screaming pain until I could have some vertebrae fused, I’d say the need was pretty urgent. But it took a week-and-a-half to get me into surgery. That was in suburban Denver.

Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital

The bottom line is, maybe it’s socialized medicine but the doctors and nurses and procedures and protocols were first rate; they saved my life. I have pre-existing conditions, which disqualify me for most insurance at home. Here? Except for personal medical histories to help treat me, no one even asked. In fact, the bureaucracy is so minimal and the priorities so different, no one ever even asked to see an ID card to prove who I am, let alone a credit card to prove my ability to pay!

And the cost? The “emergency” parts — the ambulance, the ER, the transfusions — came with no charge. The rest? Since I only went to Belfast to shoot a television news segment and don’t pay taxes and thus am not insured, I’ll pay alright, but since the model for hospital revenue isn’t based on market-driven, sometimes price-gouging profit centers, I won’t pay through the nose. If you think it’s no different in the U.S., you’re not paying attention. Market-driven healthcare systems certainly provide the best … but a big downside is cost.

And here’s the biggest difference between the two healthcare systems: the one in the U.K. is open for everybody. Residents don’t have to assess and agonize over the cost because they don’t have insurance. If they need medical care at any level, they just go. As I did. And get fixed. As I am.

And guess what: anyone who doesn’t like their universal healthcare system and wants something more can have it, through private insurance, if they’re willing and able to pay for it. Just like us. Socialized medicine? It’s not perfect, but then, neither is ours. This system saved my life. That’s good enough for me.

17 Comments

  1. Glad you are back Greg! I guess I won’t complain about the long wait in our overflowing ER rooms here in Montreal! We have socialized medicine here, also supplemented by a private medical system for some things like getting certain tests done sooner etc, if we could just manage our doctor and nurses shortages things would run alot smoother. I hope to never have to experience it firsthand like you did. Continued good health Greg! Wendy S. Reichental

  2. I lived in France for several years without American health coverage and paid just 5 Euros per office visit. My medications cost a tenth, if not less, of the U.S. price. We’ve got to do something about our system!

    Hope you’re soon up and around, Greg.

  3. Greg

    You are amazing as usual; nothing stops you. I just hope your story makes the rounds and shows the folks over there in the USA that the European health care system is so much better in every way. You’re probably tearing around on your mountain bike by now, but please, stay well!

    Cobi

  4. Wow, what a harrowing story! Glad you’re on the mend, and I hope you recover fully.

    A few years ago we visited Canada and chatted with a woman in a visitors’ center. She couldn’t understand how people could end up losing their home due to illness and was thankful to live in a place where that would never happen.

    Our healthcare system is so badly broken, and it seems as though certain candidates want to keep it that way. It’s frustrating that so many hard-working people are living without insurance or without adequate insurance, and are one emergency away from bankruptcy.

  5. Greg,

    Thank you for sharing your experience with Boomer Cafe readers. i was recently in Italy and when a friend fell and thought she had broken her wrist, she and her husband went to the ER. Her wrist was not broken, that was the first piece of good news. The second was that the ER visit, including x-rays and bandaging/sling, cost a whopping $46.00.

    We are so being sold a poor bill of goods here in the US.

  6. Glad to hear Greg that you are on the mend.
    I also must comment on the heart of the article and say that I find it of particular interest and ironic that as there are so many in Ireland and the UK, not to mention the EU and the USA, pushing for academic boycotts against the State of Israel when low and behold it was the Israelis that invented the PillCam.
    Just saying.

  7. Greg, I am so sorry to hear this news, but so relieved you are getting the care you need..here’s to a speedy recovery, and only good health ahead. My thoughts are with you and your family…stay strong and positive and keep writing when you can. Wendy a fan and reader of Boomercafé.

  8. I am glad Greg is feeling better, and was really happy that even though he hit a rough patch, he’s trying to add something to the dialog about health insurance back in the USA. Kudos Greg for stepping up with first hand experience with a public health care system. So often you hear that the British, Canadian, Irish, etc…systems ration health care, and that it’s a failed system that nobody in those countries like. That’s not what I hear when I ask my foreign friends about it. We could use a lot more “real facts” when it comes to this issue, and Greg’s input is certainly important. Wish there was more of it.

  9. It’s great to know you’re on the road to recovery. It’s also wonderful to know you received such great care.

  10. Greg and Carol – Am stunned to read this news of your illness. As a longtime fan and ardent admirer of Greg Dobbs, please accept my heart-felt wishes for a speedy and total recovery. The smart money is on Greg to be back on track & biking up the mountainous Colorado trails in the very near future. And thank you for this first-hand take on the health care system … something to which we all should give serious thought.

  11. Greg and Carol, we have followed each step, each long day from afar, cheering you on and hoping you would soon be diagnosed and feeling better. Your article shows how you continue to prevail over the seeming obstacles in your path! We’ll continue to await the good news of your eventual discharge from this great hospital and anticipate happily the day you’re well enough to return to Denver.
    Kit

  12. Let me assure all Greg’s family, colleagues, friends and admirers he’s coming on just great – a real trooper, as is wife, Carol who’s now at his bedside here in Northern Ireland. My wife, Hazel and I have the privilege of being with them regularly these days. Believe me, a finer, more congenial and courageous couple could rarely be found on this lovely planet of ours.

  13. Greg, Hate to hear that you’re ill but glad that you’re getting the care you need and will–I trust–be returned to good health soon. Best wishes for a speedy, speedy recovery. j

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