[bones]Imagine being overseas on a trip that you have been looking forward to for almost a year. In the midst of sightseeing, shopping and going out to clubs and bars, you realize that these experiences will shape how you view the world for the rest of your life, and the last thing on your mind is something ruining your trip.
That’s when it hits you: a 102 degree fever, chronic fatigue and aching muscles. Or, at least, that’s when it hit me. This past summer, on a study abroad trip in London, I got mononucleosis. [bed]
It did not take long to figure out that something was seriously wrong. I thought that the illness would keep me bedridden for a few days, but I never imagined that I’d end up in an emergency room and eventually admitted to a hospital that practiced socialized medicine: a form of healthcare completely foreign to the U.S.
Since I’ve grown up with chronic health problems and have been hospitalized for weeks at a time, I am very familiar with hospitals in the United States. I know exactly what to expect when I’m admitted for intravenous antibiotic treatments: a clean, relatively comfortable atmosphere where I can watch TV, talk on the phone and eat three relatively digestible meals a day. This was not the case at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, the hospital that has been described as the best in the United Kingdom.
For five days, I waited in the admitting ward for emergency room patients, but the standard of treatment still seemed sub-par to say the least. There were about 60 people staying on my ward and one bathroom (with one toilet and one bathtub) for the entire floor. I was luckily put into a sleeping room with one other person; however, about 16 people had a bed in a general area outside of the semi-private rooms.
The bed was a standard cot-like mattress with a metal grate at the top that could be adjusted for a head rest. There was a TV for every patient, but in order to watch one hour of programming, you had to buy cards worth 2 pounds, the equivalent of roughly four U.S. dollars. The phone was equally expensive: one minute of overseas calling cost one pound and 80 pence. Thankfully, the girls on my study abroad program came to visit me and brought me magazines, cards and candy, or else I would have been bored out of my mind.
This atmosphere is one of the consequences of socialized medicine– publicly funded healthcare provided in countries such as Canada, England and much of Western Europe. In socialized systems, the federal government subsidizes a portion of the costs, while taxpayers supplement the rest. The citizens of the country then receive free doctor’s visits, hospitalizations and medications while in the hospital.
The United States, on the other hand, operates on a privatized health care system. Each individual must pay a monthly premium to privately owned insurance companies in order to receive coverage when health problems arise. People without insurance are responsible for all costs incurred during routine doctor’s visits or medical emergencies. The U.S. does provide some aid for poor and older citizens in the form of programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, though both programs are criticized for not providing sufficient coverage.
Although health care in the United States comes under scrutiny for not ensuring all citizens are provided for medically, the best hospitals and doctors indisputably also reside and practice here. Since socialized medical systems are publicly funded, it is important to keep costs at an absolute minimum, which often means settling for doctors who are willing to work for lower wages and hospitals that are not equipped with the most modern services.
“Socialized medicine is great if you’re not sick or if you have a self-limited illness destined to get better by itself,” said Dr. Robert Stern, a pediatric pulmonologist at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, one of the university hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio. “If you have a real illness, where sophisticated treatment makes a difference, socialized medicine is a problem. There are often very long waits to see a doctor. Without a profit motive the doctor is less inclined to work hard.”
Socialized medical systems do, however, have their benefits for citizens who need it. For instance, while I was in the hospital in London, I shared a bedroom with a woman in her late 60s who had to be perpetually treated for diabetes. She told me that without the free medical care, she would never be able to afford the monthly hospitalizations required to keep her healthy. In fact, these systems even cover medical costs for non-citizens while treated in the emergency room. I was told by hospital administrators, when I was extremely worried about paying for the 1,000 pound fee per night, that if the international insurance I had gotten before the trip didn’t cover the costs, I would not be held responsible for covering them.
Carol Bontekoe, a political science junior at MSU, had a similar experience with foreign health care while in Uganda last summer. After an infection in her foot made it nearly impossible to walk, she went to “The Surgery” (a British phrase meaning “hospital”) to have it treated. The nurses put honey on the infection and wrapped it in gauze, a treatment which actually cleared up the infection.
“The staff was very lovely, though maybe not as educated as American doctors,” Bontekoe said. “I saw people dying of AIDS and malaria who would have killed for the kind of attention I got there.”
Though socialized systems receive criticism, it is important to recognize both its benefits and downfalls, since American health care is slowly moving towards more and more government intervention. If you get sick in a foreign country, the best thing to do is seek immediate treatment and not put off what could be a serious illness. By knowing what to expect, you will hopefully be more comfortable and better prepared to ask the questions that will affect the health care you receive.

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