An American doctor’s experience with the NHS

You know it’s going to be one of those days when one of the first tweets on vacation inquires about the closest hospital.

Victor, one of my 11-year-olds, had something in his eye courtesy of a big gust of wind outside of Westminster Abbey. He was complaining enough to let me flip his eyelid and irrigate his eye on the square in front of Big Ben. (I’m sure several people thought I was torturing him.)  Despite an extensive search and rinse mission no object or relief was to be found. I fretted about going to the hospital. It wasn’t the prospect of navigating a slightly foreign ER, but simply the prospect of the wait. While I am a staunch supporter of the British NHS in the back of my mind I envisioned a paralyzingly full emergency room and an agonizing 18-hour wait only to find he had nothing in his eye (the basic antechamber of hell scenario). To ensure we really needed to go I gave Victor a choice between the emergency room and a toy store (Gunter’s 3rd rule), but he declined the toys so off we went to St. Thomas hospital, conveniently right over the bridge.

The hospital was on the aging side and a little drab, but clean and well-marked. I didn’t have to ask anyone for directions. We had to take a number to be registered, but waited less than 5 minutes. I gritted my teeth a bit in preparation for the we-are-not-from-the-U.K. conversation, but it wasn’t an issue at all. I offered my U.S. insurance number for billing, but was told they didn’t need it. The clerk was, however, impressed with the fact that I flipped his eyelid and irrigated his eye before coming. “Well, you did all the right things,” and looking at his red and watering eye she smiled and said. “Looks like you are in the right place.”

Registration completed, we waited to be seen by the children’s part of the ER. A registrar (resident) did a quick triage within 5 minutes of our registering (also impressed with the eye irrigation) and then a nurse did his vitals and took a history. After that we waited less than 15 minutes for the registrar to do a formal assessment. He wanted ophthalmology to do the evaluation. I was a bit surprised the ER doc wouldn’t do it, but every facility is different and when they found out that Victor was born at 26 weeks and had retinopathy of prematurity they got a bit jumpy. Everyone does. I was OK with ophthalmology checking him out. What I have learned from years of medicine is don’t mess with the local order.

We were walked over to the urgent care clinic and were warned that the ophthalmology registrar was covering the whole hospital so it might be a while. This was our longest wait, about 20 to 30 minutes. She was very nice (also working on her PhD). Dr. Katie Williams (she gave me permission to use her name) diagnosed Victor with a corneal abrasion and easily snagged the offending speck of dirt wedged under his eyelid.  Once removed Victor exclaimed, “It’s gone!” and within a minute or two the redness cleared up. She put in antibiotic ointment and gave us a tube to use at home.

“So where do I pay?” I asked Dr. Williams.

The answer: You don’t. Perhaps they might bill us, she just wasn’t sure.

I was about as dumfounded at her answer as she was at my asking.

I protested that it wasn’t fair. We had used services and I was very prepared to pay. I also have insurance that covers emergencies when out of network, so I was pretty sure I would be reimbursed at least some of the visit. However, we were just sent away. They do have my address so it is possible I will get a bill in the mail.

I am very curious what similar care would have cost in the U.S. The saddest commentary of all is that it is really impossible to tell as billing practices are so bizarre and opaque. My guess is it would be a minimum of $1,000 in America for cash (which is egregious). If I ever get a bill from the U.K., I’ll post a follow-up. If anyone has had similar care in the U.S. and received a bill please do post in the comments. You can remain anonymous if you like.

But what of this idea that national health care means DMV-purgatory worthy waits, Dementor-staffed death panels, Saxon-age medical equipment, and incompetent care? Well, I can tell you we had great care at St. Thomas and Dr. Williams was fantastic. The slit lamp wasn’t brand new, but it worked just fine. Sure it’s an n of one, but I’ve been to the ER more times than I can count with my other son and this was as smooth as the best care we’ve had in the United States.

We could have hit the ER at an opportune time, but to expand my n I’ve also asked many people about their medical care while I’ve been in the U.K. Not one person wanted to abandon the NHS. I’ve heard of excellent care and some care that was lacking, but the bad care has nothing to do with the “national” part. Rather it was diagnostic errors or a full hospice unit, things that I hear about with the same incidence back in the world of commercial insurance. Take away the accents and I could easily have been listening to a group of Americans discussing their care. With one exception, no one in the U.K. is left wondering what the price will be or gets an egregious bill.

It makes you wonder exactly what frightens Americans about the NHS?

Jennifer Gunter is an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of The Preemie Primer. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Jen Gunter.

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