Like most Americans, Carolyn and I had been indoctrinated into the horror stories about socialized medicine, often juxtaposed with friend-of-a-friend anecdotes about how much better American medicine was than anywhere else in the world.
So when her lower back started hurting like hell for a couple of days, and then her abdomen started swelling, and then little caterpillar thingies started crawling out of her pores (just kiddin’), we thought it might be time to plunge into the abyss. We were a bit nervous to see what voodoo these doctors would perform, especially after an expected eighteen hour wait in a room filled to capacity with people sporting newly-dismembered limbs, or with faces populated with pustules the size of hamburger patties, and sheep.
We were one of the 99-plus percenters: the 99-plus percent of Americans who have never experienced anything but American-style medicine, but had an unshakable opinion about how it compares to the rest of the world regardless.
Personally, I’d revised a lot of my opinions after reading various statistics on health care. After studying the reports, I began to wonder if perhaps America’s only medical miracle was teaching people how to twist their bodies in such a way that their heads would fit neatly up their ass. For instance, the U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in life expectancy at birth (and it’s getting worse… and don’t blame it on North America, Canada beats us by three years), and has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the industrialized world, beaten out by such luminaries as Poland, Hungary, and of course Portugal. In fact, the list below the US reads like a who’s-who of third world countries.
And there’s a lot, lot more (like we probably lead the world in healthcare lawsuits as well)… but this is also in addition to our paying the most per capita in the world. Let me repeat that: We spend more on health care per person than any other country in the world. Surely that has to buy us something?
If statistics won’t prove our bang for the buck, what about a great anecdote that supports the idea that whenever you go to the doctor outside the U.S., you better bring a cooler with two full day’s supply of rations as well as a couple of books and a pillow?
Kevin & Carolyn to the rescue! We were prepared to restore a little glory to Old Glory, at least as far as getting medical help was concerned.
Armed with our insurance card and a Google Map to the nearest hospital, we set out on our quest to experience the underbelly of socialized medicine.
And this was to be no lightweight example. We were really testing the system by going in on a Saturday, surely one of the busiest days of the week for hospitals.
We had no idea what to expect as we drove into the hospital parking lot. It looked clean and uncrowded. We were immediately suspicious. Do they just kill everyone and steal their cars?
The Portuguese love to use number machines to set your place in line. As an example, I recently had to go to Ikea to return a light fixture. I looked aghast at the hoards of people morosely sitting in the waiting area. It was the exact picture I had in my mind as to what to expect from a typical hospital waiting room in a country with socialized medicine. I took a number from the machine. It spat out B 096. I looked at the monitor. It was at B 032. I immediately tossed the tag into the waste bin, deciding that the fixture wasn’t as ugly as we thought.
So if Ikea was that bad… how much worse would a hospital on a Saturday be?
We ambled through the front door like lost puppies, looking for the Recepção sign. Over there! But wait! There was no line, and only one employee behind the counter. We were probably in the wrong place. Maybe Recepção really meant “Reciepts,” and no one needed those.
We greeted her with our standard line: “Fala Inglês?” To which she responded with the typical Portuguese response of, “A little.” She then proceeded to converse with us in better English than my high school English teacher.
We gave her our particulars. Not once did she ask why we wanted to see a doctor. I found that refreshing. What business is it of anyone besides the doctor anyway? But in the U.S., you’re usually forced to offer up a detailed description of all the bumps on your private parts, when you last went pee and what color the urine was, plus your shoe size, all to a receptionist who takes ten minutes to find the right color yellow to fill in the little box with the accurate rendering of the color of your pee.
Our Portuguese counterpart had no such interest in those particulars, but simply took our insurance card and our address. She then said they couldn’t bill them directly. That was fine. We didn’t care. We needed a doctor. We didn’t mind if they were going to charge us two thousand dollars for being dumb enough to be an American inside a socialized medical country. We just wanted some pills or surgery dammit!
That was it. She didn’t need to know our income level, or whether we even had a credit card, or what our shoe size was. We didn’t have to fill out eight forms about our medical history and what our great-grandparents died from. She just said, “The doctor is upstairs right now, if you’ll take a seat, he should be down to see you in, oh, maybe fifteen minutes or so. It’s hard to say.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but in the U.S., when I’ve had an appointment, the wait is usually much longer than fifteen minutes. With no appointment, into something like urgent care of the emergency room? I usually plan on an hour, or maybe a week, or more. But here we were, without an appointment, wandering into a random hospital with an undisclosed medical condition, and the doctor will be with us in fifteen minutes? I knew she had to be a serial liar.
After about twenty minutes (See! Five minutes off!), he appeared, and waved us in to his office… us as in both of us. I was a little confused at first, because the only other time I’ve been allowed into a medical office with my wife was when she was giving birth, or we were receiving very bad news. However, as he showed us to our chairs, it occurred to me that it was quite smart to do so. There was no need for a nurse to be on hand with a male doctor and a lone female patient. Her husband was right by her side. Cost savings right there, kaching!
The whole experience with the doctor reminded me of what it must have been like to go to the doctor long before insurance companies stuck their nose into everything and screwed it all up, sending costs through the roof and the quality of care below the basement. He took his time asking her questions. He prodded and poked her as he tried to figure out what the problem might be. He then sat us down and explained in detail all the things it could be, what it probably wasn’t, and what we were going to do to narrow it down further. He prescribed three medications: two of them muscle relaxants and one a pain medicine. He was pretty certain it was a pulled or irritated muscle, but just in case, he said if those things didn’t work, we should come back and see him tomorrow, Sunday.
After shaking our hands warmly, he led us back to Recepção, and explained everything to her she would need to know to finalize our process. He shook our hands one more time, as if wishing there was something more wrong with either of us so he could spend even more time with us, and took his leave. The receptionist then told us we could make an appointment, but since we might not actually have to come in, we should just come in whenever we felt like it, that would be fine.
The charge? 65 bucks. That’s without any insurance-anything. That’s for about a half-hour of a doctor’s time in a hospital. Women pay more for their haircuts in the U.S.
We can bill our insurance company for it, but if we forget, what the heck– it’s already about the same price as most co-pays in the U.S.!
So how about the medicine you ask? Maybe that’s where they sock it to us? The grand total was fifteen bucks. No, that’s not the co-pay. That’s the entire cost of three full prescriptions.
We can be very happy getting sick in Portugal.
So I gotta tell ya. I know people hate to change their minds about things. But if you really think the U.S. has the best health care in the world… do some research. Start with the data, the internet is very handy for that. Honestly? I’m not sure you can find any data that actually supports that premise. Now throw in our lone experience in a socialized-medicine country –and one that is a little further behind technologically than many western countries besides– and boy howdy, it’s time to give that single payer health care system some thought, don’t you think?