A European Goes to the Doctor in America

A medical emergency while on holiday became a reminder of how amazing it is to live in a country with free healthcare

There are few things here in Britain that people love more than the National Health Service (NHS). Our free-at-point-of-use healthcare system is “a symbol of what is great about Britain, and we must do everything we can to maintain it” — 72% of respondents agreed with this statement in a 2013 Ipsos-Mori poll. To give you an idea of just how strongly Brits feel about the NHS: the survey also concluded that people would celebrate the NHS over the Queen, Jane Austen, the Football Association, Doctor Who, and the Beatles.

I thought about this one Monday morning in May, when I woke up to the unmistakable twinges of a urinary tract infection. Never a good way to start the day, granted, but normally not too big a deal: I’d just call my London doctor, who would almost certainly give me an appointment for later in the day. The whole thing would cost me a grand total of £8.40 ($11) — the standard NHS prescription fee.

But on this particular morning it wasn’t so simple. I was traveling to New York. I’d have to leave my house no later than 8:30 AM to catch my flight, meaning I had a choice: doctor or airplane. As I sure wasn’t about to miss a trip I’d been looking forward to for months, the choice was clear. I chugged back some home remedies and jumped on the Tube to Heathrow, crossing my fingers hard for the seven hour flight ahead.

But crossing your fingers isn’t real medicine. And five days later, when I’d run out of my home remedies (D-Mannose, for interested parties — it’s kept the doctor at bay for six years), my ailment became impossible to ignore. I had to face facts: I was going to have to find a doctor. Right now. An American doctor! And they were going to charge me a heck of a lot more than a tenner.

Having lived in Europe for the vast majority of my life, I’d never had to consider the cost of medical treatment before. Even now, I have absolutely no concept of what healthcare actually costs, although I’ve watched enough episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” to know it’s can be a lot, even for little things. Unsure of what to do, I phoned an American in London. “Your best option is a walk-in centre, if you can find one,” Luke told me. “A&E may be easier, but it will cost you.” How reassuring! I knew my complaint was minor, but being sick makes you feel vulnerable. From my European perspective, the situation felt profoundly wrong. I’d actually postponed seeking medical treatment due to fear that a poor choice could leave me with a massive bill.

Having lived in Europe for the vast majority of my life, I’d never had to consider the cost of medical treatment before.

Increasingly anxious, I texted Erum, a Brit who’s lived in New York for years. Assuring me it would be ok, she recommended a reasonably priced walk-in centre. Soon after I was on my way to an address in Brooklyn, clutching my Visa card. “Do you have insurance?” the receptionist asked as I approached. I shook my head, in too much pain to care anymore. “I’ll pay!”

The receptionist nodded and gave me a form to fill out, and a mere two minutes later a nurse called me in. Five minutes after that, my self-diagnosis was confirmed by an extremely attractive hipster doctor. My prescription would be waiting for me at the pharmacy, the receptionist told me as she swiped my card: $145 for the pleasure, and a little later, $18 for my medication.

As it turns out, there may well be some benefits to paid-for medical treatment. For one, I’ve never been seen so quickly by a doctor in my life. It was also the nicest medical facility I’d been in: new, clean, and with hardly anyone waiting. Most of the time, London doctors are running behind by up to an hour. A couple of days after my visit, the clinic emailed me to ask how I was getting on, attaching my medical report. This was surprising for two reasons: it was a follow-up I didn’t have to chase, and also, use of electronic communication tools! The NHS, not exactly known for speed, would have sent me a letter two months later.

But none of it was worth the stress of worrying about the cost. My American medical experience was a reminder to never take for granted the fact that my doctor in London is free. And in the end, it didn’t actually cost all that much in monetary terms, since my travel insurance covered most of it. I’d taken out travel insurance in case I got hit by a bus, but short of making sure it covered the US, I hadn’t actually read the fine print.

Encouraged by my husband to at least try, I called the insurer after I got home. I spoke to a nice lady who asked me, what had been my ailment? “Aha,” she said when I told her. She had no follow-up questions. Two weeks later a cheque arrived, covering the expense short of a £35 ($46) deductible. I promptly spent some of it on completing my Beatles collection (Revolver!), one fine British institution that I adore — almost as much as I love the NHS.

Jessica Furseth is a freelance journalist in London. She’s on Twitter and Tumblr.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.