Sorry for the break, Londontopia readers – I have been ill. However, this means that I can now write to you about the lovely NHS! The system is sort of in turmoil at the moment, with governments moving toward American-style privatization of medical care and cutting budgets left, right, and centre.
Everyone is in an uproar, as doctors like to both be paid and be able to offer good healthcare, and patients like to receive free or nearly-free healthcare. Look at Obamacare – it’s basically America’s attempt to imitate the UK (or at least Canada), because health and term life insurance and medicine in the US are like rams in a continual head-butting contest. On the other hand, surveys of Britons say that they are actually satisfied with care at the moment, but that many are extremely worried that the quality will decline if privatized. (I agree.)
The National Health Service (currently) operates on the principle that healthcare should be free and available to all individuals. My friend was a rugby player and now receives physical therapy for her knee for free. If you go to the emergency room (here called A&E – “accident and emergency”), you don’t have to present proof of insurance for them to see you.
I believe ambulances are free, as well. As a student staying for longer than six months, I am covered by NHS. Tourists and short-stay visitors are not covered. They can still go to the A&E and clinics, but will have to pay a small fee.
Additionally, prescriptions are only about £7-8 each, but are FREE for British citizens with long-standing conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy. I’ll say it again: FREE. (If only they had my US prescriptions here – sadly, many drugs are different, and some are not offered at all.) Pharmacists seem to have much more flexibility in prescribing than in the US (they are real pharmacists, not just pharmacy technicians), and things like codeine are available behind the counter without a prescription. Oddly, though, you have to be over 18 to buy knives, and you get cross-examined when buying hydrogen peroxide.
The downside of the NHS, though, is that things can take a long time. It’s like the time I took my friend to a Chicago ER for a cut on her hand that we thought should get stitches. People are put in an order and taken when a doctor is available based on severity of trauma. Of course, people in diabetic shock, with stab wounds, with severe burns, with trouble breathing, with debilitating conditions, et cetera, will all be seen before a healthy college kid with a cut. No matter how bad your 7-stitches injury seems, the intake nurses are gonna bump you all the way to the back. You could say the NHS works like an ER, with prioritizing based on severity.
You also have to see a GP (general practitioner) before you can see a specialist who actually gets things done. In the fall, I had a terrible ingrown toenail. I knew I needed a podiatrist, and I knew the procedure would take all of ten minutes. I went in to the GP at my university clinic – which luckily has walk-in hours – and said, “I need a podiatrist.” After the GP made the same diagnosis, he said that I would probably not be able to see one for at least three weeks, because they deal with more pressing matters. He recommended I find a private clinic.
Here is how the NHS’s problems are kind-of-but-not-really solved: private clinics and hospitals. There is a class divide, it seems, between people who have to use the NHS and people who choose not to. There are advertisements at work for private insurance. Princess Grace Hospital, near Baker Street, is an entirely private hospital. I lucked out finding a place that was open on Saturdays – an old-style pharmacy in Soho called John Bell & Croyden, which has a variety of private clinics in addition to direct-to-consumer sales of medical equipment (wheelchairs, glass beakers, scalpels, professional-grade toothpaste and the like). They do same-day appointments and were very friendly and quick – but I had to pay. Private hospitals are popularly believed to provide better care – but then, they haven’t had their budgets cut. However, all the NHS doctors I’ve seen have been competent and professional, and that’s only the ones at the university. I’m sure they are all pretty great and deserve more.
A final note on ambulances. For the last four years, I have lived across the street from a hospital. Every night, in addition to the 171 bus announcing itself hourly and being in Midway Airport’s flight path, I fell asleep to the sound of police cars, sirens, and the occasional medical helicopter. When I moved to London, I thought I would finally be free of the noise. Drunken revelers are fine, as I can just yell at them; that’s to be expected in a city. But not two days after I moved in, I found a terror – an ambulance dispatch. They have two ambulances there most times, painted bright lemon yellow with those terrible flashing blue lights that I can see through my fifth-floor windows. Fortunately they don’t go by very often, but they do park anywhere but the designated ambulance spots, causing cars to swerve dangerously.
Since I walk by every day, I’ve actually found that they have multiple types of vehicles – first I saw the ambulance moped, then the ambulance bicycle. This is just as you imagine – a bicycle painted bright yellow with stripes and saddlebags full of equipment. According to the EMT I talked to, the bicycle carries everything an ambulance has except a backboard, and it has the benefit of traveling in the bike lane and through parks and alleys.
Finally, one day some horse manure appeared outside my building. Crap, I thought quite literally. Where did this come from? Then, a few days later, I heard a familiar clop-clop outside my window. I opened it to look, and saw none other than a large chestnut horse in an ambulance yellow-and-stripe blanket. I can only assume this is used for “romantic emergencies” such as women drowning in ponds, and suddenly a hand pulls her out of the water onto a beautiful horse with a handsome EMT…
Relevant Link: http://www.HBF.com.au Health Insurance