USA vs UK: the health care Olympics

nurses - Deborah Lupton's Storify (opens in a new tab)

London 2012 opening ceremony: NHS nurses

The treatment centers were too expensive the lowest price my sister was quoted was $799.00 A DAY! I realized at that moment that if I was wealthy I could possibly save my daughter! What a horrible thought to know! I am not rich and my beautiful daughter was fighting this on her own. How pathetic I felt! If I had a better job with better benefits we possibly could fight this.

A pretty great blog about eating disorders came up on WordPress’s Freshly Pressed page the other day. And in a slightly convoluted way, it made me think of the London 2012 opening ceremony.

The words above are from Reanna’s Story. Reanna was seventeen when she lost her life to anorexia while waiting for treatment. Her devastated mother, Tracy Smith, told her story to a Congressional Briefing held by the Eating Disorders Coalition. Just warning you before you click on that link: the details of the illness are quite upsetting.

In America, health care facilities are largely owned and operated by the private sector. You are supposed to have health insurance to cover your needs. If you don’t – well, sorry, but basically that’s tough. Read this and be scared.

[Yes, American health care is more complicated than this.  No, I’m not going to discuss the complexities. Yes, I’ve simplified for the purposes of the argument. No, this does not make my argument invalid.]

So when Reanna’s body was shutting down, and she urgently needed professional help, it just boiled down to the simple fact that her mother could not afford the money required. Let me repeat Tracy’s words:

I realized at that moment that if I was wealthy I could possibly save my daughter…How pathetic I felt!

Something had to be done. Tracy changed her life completely in order to get the requisite health insurance, but time was running out:

August 2010, I went back to school to get a better job. I went to Truck Driving School. I knew that if I put all my efforts towards this I could get her the insurance she needed to fight this disease. In early September 2010 I got a job offer. This meant I needed to make drastic changes. Being a single mother I sent my daughters to live with their older sister in Las Vegas, NV. I would be employed by Night Trucking with an awesome insurance package. Unfortunately this meant I had to leave my daughter when she needed me most! I knew that this was going to be the solution to our problems. I was gone for seven weeks straight. I called every day and every night we texted often. My daughters would give me updates regarding Reanna’s condition, and they were not good. She was increasing her bingeing, purging and depression was more severe. No one could get her to stop, not even me.

Reanna died on 15th November 2010. The last words she wrote in her journal were

Where is the help I was promised?
Not here, not my fault I want help!

This story is horrific. And I couldn’t help but think about the contrast with healthcare in Britain.

The London 2012 opening ceremony was a retrospective of British history, showcasing the best of Britain from pre-Industrial Revolution to the present day. As amusing as Dizzee Rascal was (is), what really stayed with me was the performance by nurses and patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital. The UK’s public healthcare system, the National Health Service, was established on the core principle that good healthcare should be available to all, regardless of wealth, and to my mind is one of the best ever British achievements.

The NHS is free at the point of delivery, which means that when you feel ill, you go to the doctor, and you don’t pay them anything. When you’re seriously injured in a car accident, the ambulance comes, and you don’t pay them anything. When you’re suffering from a life-threatening disorder, you go to hospital, and you don’t pay them anything. It’s funded through the general taxation system, so your access to the medical care you need is based on whether you need it, not whether you can pay for it.

I love so many things about America, and so much good has come out of that country. And I really, really don’t want this to be about one nation thinking it’s better than another because it has a different health care system, so this isn’t really the health care Olympics. But as I read Reanna’s story, I knew it wouldn’t happen like that in Britain, and that makes me very sad for her and her mother.

The Eating Disorders Coalition in the USA is devoted to working on the federal recognition of eating disorders as a public health priority. Click here to donate to the EDC.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “USA vs UK: the health care Olympics

  1. Reblogged this on Being Real and commented:
    Hear Hear. And relating slightly, I watched Chronicle last night: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-M5Qx57_UU) and I can’t help feeling that if main character Andrew’s mum’s prescription had cost £7.65 ( http://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/Healthcosts/Pages/Prescriptioncosts.aspx ) then things wouldn’t have gone so awry…

  2. liz

    I, too, am concerned about the high (and rising) cost of health care in America, and the story you refer to is tragic. It breaks my heart. I was incredibly thankful, when I was living and working in the UK, that I did not have to try to get a health insurance policy like so many American friends of mine who are self-employed and, consequently, struggling to pay for health insurance.

    However, if I could just play the devil’s advocate for a moment…while I did get “free” health care when living in the UK, I was definitely misdiagnosed a couple of times (one of which could have been quite serious). And my local clinic and GP, with which I was required to register because of my mailing address, were sorely overstretched and could not keep up with demand. Maybe those issues were (are) unique to the lower-income area where I was living. There were just several times when, even though the health care was there in theory, it felt like I may as well have not had health care at all. I do also feel like I should mention something that the US is doing to try to make health care more accessible under the present circumstances. In a number of cities, like the one where my parents live, comprehensive care clinics are popping up that aim to offer quality health care at affordable costs (particularly for those who do not have health insurance).

    I guess I’m just trying to say that, while paying a fortune for health care is not an option for many people (there’s no way I could pay $800 a day), I feel like my experience with the NHS wasn’t as great in practice as it sounds in theory. I’m looking forward to hearing your response to this in case I’m basing everything on experiences that were unique to me…thoughts?

    • thanks for this 🙂 it’s always good to hear of other people’s experiences. I’m sorry yours wasn’t so good.

      I didn’t mean to imply that the NHS is categorically better than the American system. I know it isn’t, I know there are some huge disadvantages – including, as you say, patchy quality of health care in some places, and some places which are extremely busy and do struggle to meet demand.

      Regarding being forced to register with a specific clinic: there are usually several GP surgeries in each area, so when you move to a new place you have a choice which one you want to register with. You can read reviews of each practice online at NHS Choices (http://www.nhs.uk/servicedirectories/Pages/ServiceSearch.aspx). After you’ve registered, you can change to a different one if you don’t like yours. And if you disagree with your diagnosis, you’re always entitled to a second opinion from another doctor.

      My personal experiences of the NHS have always been positive. In 2006 my mum was run over by a 4×4, which shattered her femur and caused numerous other serious injuries. The ambulance was there within 15 minutes, and the paramedics took amazing care of her. Other paramedics spoke to and comforted myself and others who had witnessed the accident. Four weeks and several operations later (including to put a metal pin in her leg for life, to replace the femur), she was discharged from hospital with follow-up care, physical and psychological (she was offered counselling to deal with the trauma); and, later on, the offer of cosmetic surgery to reduce the scars of the operations. It’s worth mentioning that the hospital which did the skin graft on her leg was St George’s in Tooting – near where you lived 🙂

      She now cycles, runs up and down stairs, dances, does everything she did before the incident, pretty much. Throughout it all, every single medical person we dealt with was professional, friendly, and helpful.

      I’m aware that some of this may be to do with location, but I also think some of it is random fluctuation… and I’m sorry you got the bad randomness.

  3. liz

    I know you weren’t promoting one system over the other, and I really appreciate your balanced view. I’ve had quite a few discussions with people about US vs UK health care over the years, and my response was directed more toward general comments that I’ve heard than specifically toward your post. I’m glad to hear some positive experiences. Like I said, my experience may well have been the exception rather than the rule.

    To give you a little more background: I had the choice of two clinics based on my address in Tooting, and, after some research, chose what was supposed to be the better of the two. It was extremely difficult to get an appointment, though, and I was frequently referred to the walk-in clinic at St. George’s, which was always understaffed (or perhaps it would be better to say always overflowing with patients).

    I do think really highly of St. George’s, though. I’ve done quite a lot of roleplay work there with GPs-in-training, and I know that they strive to offer the best health care possible. I’ve also done roleplay work in a number of other London hospitals, and have a great deal of respect for them.

    I have actually heard a number of good things about people needing emergency medical treatment and being well taken care of by the NHS. (And, to be fair, I was taken care of quickly and efficiently by a minor emergency clinic in Minehead when I had an unexpected allergic reaction to the food at Butlins.) It was just my experience with the basic treatment offered by my local clinics that made me think there are some disadvantages in the system. But I do heartily agree that there are tremendous disadvantages in the US system, too (and, apparently, those are expected to get worse as demand for health care grows in the coming years).

  4. Pingback: this is me not blogging about the election | a different daylight

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