After my breast cancer scare and exemplary care in the UK, I’ve felt a powerful urge to shout at the Brits: do you know what an extraordinary health system you have?
By Paola Totaro
The Guardian (U.K.), Aug. 12, 2014
I found the lump a fortnight ago while on a work assignment in Vilnius, Lithuania. It was a hot, sunny day in the landlocked capital but as my fingers discovered what felt like a ping pong ball sized growth, ice went through my veins. I am not a catastrophist by nature but within seconds, I had envisaged the worst and by the time I was in the air homeward bound for Heathrow a few days later, I was writing my will in my head.
We have lived in London since 2008 and not a day goes by when the National Health Service isn’t in the news, more often than not for mistakes, delays, apparent inefficiency or targeted for funding cuts. From the red top tabloids to the circulation busting, Daily Mail, sticking the knife into the NHS seems to have become a favoured British sport (paradoxically, Britons still gush with national pride about Danny Boyle’s London Olympics opening ceremony and his eccentrically, flamboyant homage to the NHS.)
Paradoxically too, despite this background hum of complaint, just 11% of Brits have private medical cover, compared to the 54% of Australians who pay for some form of general treatment cover.
Like most other Aussies, I’d paid for private health insurance since my mid 20s. Australia also has a world class public health system but “gap” payments – the costs over and above what is reimbursed by Medicare – can be significant, especially for specialist treatment. Having a family with four kids meant it made even more sense later although I was shocked by a rough, back of the envelope calculation that shows $70,000 went in medical insurance since the mid 1980s.
In Britain, dentistry is pretty much the only medical procedure you pay for, and even that is incredibly cheap: £18.50 for screening and x-rays to a capped, one-off £219 payment for complex, multiple treatments like crowns, bridges and dentures.
All GP visits and diagnostic tests are free while under 16s receive free prescription medicines as well as dentistry, including orthodontics such as braces.
Last year alone, the NHS performed 10,595m operations, up nearly 60% on 10 years ago. Every 36 hours, the NHS deals with one million patients while its hospitals admitted 15,146m people between 2012 and 2013, up by a third on a decade ago. Do UK taxpayers have any idea just how lucky they are?
Suddenly vulnerable that fateful Monday morning, I wasn’t thinking quite so optimistically about the system. Without an appointment, I headed to the local GP surgery at 7.50 am for the first open surgery. Despite widespread national complaint about waiting times, I was in with my usual GP within 35 minutes. Brisk, efficient and thorough, she examined me with empathy and promised King’s Hospital would contact me for tests within seven working days. She insisted I call her if I’d not heard anything by Friday.
Exactly 24 hours later, Royal Mail delivered a letter giving me an appointment with the breast care unit at King’s College Hospital at 11am that Friday (four days later). I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The next day however, a hospital receptionist rang to apologise that they’d over-booked Friday and would I mind moving to the following Monday. The idea of another anxiety-riddled weekend led me to beg that they call me if a cancellation opened up: I live a walk away and could be there in minutes. Unbelievably, an hour and a quarter later, thanks to patient being delayed by a train malfunction, I found myself in the breast unit.
Over the following four hours I saw a specialist consultant, underwent four mammograms, two ultrasounds, a needle-guided aspiration of one lump and an intense and frightening moment when a second lump was found behind the first. Another two mammograms followed, apparently 3D this time, but when I saw the specialist again late that afternoon, I knew from his unabashed smile it would be alright: “I’m convinced there is nothing sinister. These were cysts…we don’t know why and it may happen again, but all you need for now is this antibiotic, just to be sure.” Pathology would be back on Monday but his confidence was clear. I could have hugged the man and he, an oncologist delivering good news, was genuinely happy too.
In the weeks since, I’ve felt a powerful urge to shout at the Brits: “Do you know what an extraordinary health system you have? How civilized your society is to afford everyone, rich, poor, young and old a world class health safety net?”
Back with my GP the following week, I said something similar and this chronically over worked, brisk wonderful woman stopped and rummaged in her drawer: “Look at this,” she said showing me the latest British Medical Journal, “The NHS tops the world’s health systems in a comparison of 11 developed nations … it tops it! And nobody reports it, nobody says a word. Of course we have problems, all systems do but when things go right – which they do more often than not – silence!”
Well, here I am not only saying something but shouting it publicly and loudly: wake up British taxpayers, wake up and appreciate – and protect – what you have built with such vision since the NHS’s birth in 1948.
And Aussies? Please, please don’t ignore the possibility that the proposed GP co-payment, sold as a measure to slash the mounting cost of health care driven, won’t just get hiked over and over again – and the Medicare that you know and do love won’t just disappear before your eyes.
Paola Totaro is an Australian journalist and writer specializing in European affairs, politics, social policy and the arts. She was most recently the London-based Europe correspondent for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and has reported widely across politics, education and urban affairs.