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
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.
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.
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.