My Experience with Healthcare from the US to Holland to Hungary to the UK

Have you ever wondered about the different healthcare systems around the world? are some of my experiences...

Being an expat from the United States living in Europe, I have noticed that all cultures tend to romanticize one another. This is especially true when specific vital systems in place, such as healthcare, differ drastically from country to country. In the United States, there is an awful lot out there praising the “European way” of life, from the apparent “cleaner” food to access to quality free healthcare. Likewise, here in Europe, a certain envy about American culture abounds whenever I reveal my birthplace.

Having lived abroad on and off for five years and suffering from lupus SLE, I have seen my fair share of doctors who operate within the realms of several different healthcare systems. For better or worse, each seems to run on its own terms and for all the glamorization we put on the “Other,” it is clear that no system has it all figured out.

I’ve spent the majority of my life in the United States and that is where I was diagnosed with lupus. As I was lucky enough for my father to have an amazing healthcare plan, I didn’t have many issues with the American healthcare system, but I understand I’m in the minority. Far too many times, I’ve seen people go bankrupt over simple procedures, avoid seeing doctors for years due to lack of insurance and witnessed patients being sent home before making a full recovery due to their insurance declaring them well. Although America does have some fabulous doctors, machines and medical advances, everything is run privately. This leaves few options for those who cannot afford healthcare or whose jobs simply don’t provide it. Testing, such as running a simple diagnostic procedure, can cost you north of $4,000 without insurance. And if you don’t have insurance simply because the monthly cost a month is too much to justify, how are you supposed to pay $4,000 on top of all of the other treatment? Fortunately, I haven’t been in this situation, but since I no longer have health insurance in the US, I’m sure this is going to become a reality if I ever decide to return home.

In 2009, I had a stint teaching English in Budapest, Hungary. Due to several unfortunate circumstances, I wound up having to visit several specialists, which was a very different experience. Since I don’t speak Hungarian, I am still a bit fuzzy on the details of how insurance works, but I know that I was only covered when I began working. However, that isn’t the part that seems strange to a westerner. In Hungary, nudity at a doctor’s appointment is completely normal: to the point that they don’t provide gowns (or only do so very rarely). When I went in for a chest X-ray, I was told to simply take my top off and when I attempted to cover myself, the nurse asked if I was cold. Fortunately, they spoke English at this practice, which isn’t always the case—meaning if you’re an expat with an interpreter, they get to see all of your bits and bobs as well. Unfortunately for me, I did have to use one of my bosses as an interpreter for a later appointment, which means a whole lot of embarrassment.

Despite the nudity, there are other things in Hungarian medical care that stir up delicate non-former Soviet Bloc sensibilities. For example, the doctor did not send my labs out for testing, but rather tested them herself in a hand-operated machine. When specimens do have to go out for testing, it isn’t the doctor who sends them, but it is your responsibility as a patient. I cannot tell you how odd it was going into the post office and standing in line knowing you’re essentially holding your own pee to send through federal post. But I think the kicker for Hungary was when I went to see an ENT specialist. She spoke rather roughly to me in Hungarian (which was oddly translated to, “Please relax”), only to look down my throat with a metal tongue depressor that had clearly been used before. When she was finished, it went into disinfectant with all of the others that had been down people’s throats that day. I don’t know if they went through further washing before being used again or if that was sufficient.

In 2011-2012, I spent a year getting an MA in History at the University of Amsterdam. During this time, I never saw a specialist, but was often in the doctor’s office for recurrent UTIs.  In Holland, everyone has medical insurance. It is not free, but rather something like €500 a year. If you cannot pay it, the state will help you. But you must have this in order to be treated. Other than that, my experience with the healthcare system in Holland was fairly neutral. My medicine was certainly cheaper than what I would receive in the United States. The only weird part, for me, was that I never seemed to be examined. Instead, the doctor would simply take notes and listen to my symptoms and order specific tests. In the countless times I went into my GP’s office there, not one person ever examined me. Holland, however, is easier for an expat without the language skills as very rarely do you run into a medical professional who struggles with English.

Currently, I live in the United Kingdom where I’m experiencing the brunt of a healthcare system that seems to be completely overloaded with all of the people using it. I’m not sure if this is nationwide, but it seems that the city I live in is expanding so rapidly that the NHS (National Health Service) just cannot keep up with it. Yes, healthcare here is free and prescriptions are a minimal cost, but in the end, it seems someone pays a price for that. And that person is mostly you.

When I lived in a different city in the UK, I could easily get an appointment with my GP on the same day if I woke up at 8AM and called in. Now, in my current town, it takes a week or longer to even get booked in to see someone. This becomes quite ridiculous when you’re already sick now—it’s almost as though you may want to make a standing appointment just to make sure you’re okay every two weeks. Additionally, I have had to stay in a hospital twice here and my situation took two admissions and six weeks to rectify—when it was a relatively simple problem. Once admitted to the hospital, scans and tests can take days to be ordered. This left me sitting in pain, pumped up with codeine, in a hospital bed while no one seemed to be able to give me a straight answer about what was next for three days. In the end, the problem did get sorted, but it took a lot of persistence, pushing, and doctors trying to talk me out of the very treatment that ended up solving the problem.

Healthcare in general, around the world, has tons of problems that need to be ironed out—whether it is access, being understaffed or simply not having the right equipment. After having experienced healthcare in four countries, I can tell you very plainly that to err is human; and those running the healthcare industries are all very, very human. 

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1 comment

  1. The grass is always greener, but only someone like you that has experienced all these different types of healthcare can start to change it for the better.


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