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The differences between the US and UK health care systems

Posted Mar 26 2008 12:00am

I have experienced health care on both sides of the pond, so whilst some may disagree with my opinions, I believe them to be valid.

In the UK, it’s all about maximising resources, saving money, damage control/harm reduction. I’ve been shunted from program to program, deemed “unresponsive”/chronic and had several years of “treatment” where the primary focus was on living with my eating disorder. I was taught how to maintain a low weight in as stable a way as possible. I was taught how to minimise the damage I was doing to my body. This, to me, was great. I was tired of living in psychiatric units. I was tired of being held down and force-fed, tired of my body being controlled by others. Once I turned 21, the focus changed and in order to prevent wasting more money on treatment I wasn’t making use of*, it was all about helping me to avoid medical crisis after medical crisis, and manage my condition in the community. This is fine and well. Everybody knows that eating disorders can kill people. What people don’t know is that if it doesn’t kill you straightaway, you live, day in and day out, within a vacuum- nothing is as important as food and weight. You think of nothing else. You have no social life because your malnourished state is causing such obsessive thinking that you cannot hold a conversation, never mind relax over drinks with friends (friends? oh- did nobody tell you that you lose them all? They have lives to live that DON’T revolve around calories/numbers). Anyway. Back to my point. I was being taught how to stay entrenched in my illness without really realising the impact this would have. It wasn’t just a case of being a normal functioning human being who happens to be rather thin. It was more a case of being left to my own devices knowing that there would be some intervention only if and when I should happen to collapse in the street and somebody calls an ambulance. Fair enough. The National Health Service has spent a fortune on my treatment- money that maybe could have been better spent elsewhere. Maybe on something other than just refeeding. Or on a program better suited to an anorexic 15 year old than a juvenile detention centre (after one doctor washed his hands of me and nobody knew quite what to do with this child who would just not be normal dammit)

So, yes. I’ve had my fair share of NHS treatment and quite frankly, would not be alive today without it. But…there’s always a but. Maybe I am being a little too ‘Pollyanna’-ish about it, but I still believe that there is a better life out there for me. I don’t think I have to settle for what I currently have. I don’t want the life that the NHS has mapped out for me- several more years of outpatient weigh-ins/check-ins, doped up on psychiatric medications, too stuck in my own world to hold down a job/live independently/have a *gasp* life.

This train of thought was what prompted me to try a different approach. The NHS was (and remains) a closed door in terms of actual help with a true recovery for me. I looked elsewhere and was very fortunate to qualify for a research study in America. I do consider myself VERY lucky to be offered a place on this program. The treatment was free because I participated in research. From the word “go”, it was clear that they KNEW recovery was possible. They weren’t even going to entertain the idea that living with an eating disorder was an option. No sir-ee. This was a whole-hog “refeed/fix the brain/eat like a normal person/you can do it” program. I got to a healthy weight for the first time in about 6 years. I ate pizza and French toast. I started a part-time job, a part-time class at university, met new people…got a life. Things were starting to take on a new and exciting form for me.

I graduated from the program, and for follow-up, attended a world-renowned treatment centre’s day program. Don’t let the name fool you kids- you don’t always get exactly what it says on the label. This was a “wham bam thank you ma’am” program. You paid a rather disgusting amount of money just to be scrutinised as you cut your sandwich into quarters, and sat in endless hours of silence as the groups were facilitated by robotic clones who seemed brainwashed into saying little more than, “that is inappropriate conversation” should we even dare to utter the slightest reference to food/weight/body image/celebrities/men/media/fashion (hence the silence- you can only talk about the weather for so long!). The first signs of struggling, you were issued a “contract”- break the contract and you go to a higher level of care (oh, and what do you know? they even OFFER a higher level of care, at…what a surprise! An even higher cost!) I didn’t technically break my contract, but it came to a point where I had “saturated my time on the program”. Their explanation was that I would not get more benefit from the delights they offered. The reality was that I was paying the sliding-scale fee, and after a certain length of time, they wanted to give my space to somebody paying the full cost. Fair play. Business is business.

WAIT! NO!

Business should not be *just* business when it comes to health care. What about the patient? Where do they come in? Isn’t their health a priority? Nope. Not if they don’t have the money or the potential to sue at some point. You have enough to pay for treatment but not for a lawyer? You’re home free. You have semi-decent insurance? They’ll take you, all concerned and caring, then 3 days later kick you out when insurance pulls out. All of a sudden you go from being “in desperate need of help/support/observation”, to “there’s no more money- pack your bags”. Seriously. I’ve seen it happen.

Americans may read this and not bat an eyelid- it’s the system they know. I was shocked. The system, in both countries, is fatally flawed. No, I am not being melodramatic here. I don’t even want to imagine how many people die each year as a result of the US money-making machine that they (almost laughably) call “Health care”, and the British system, whilst free, is almost as bad with the “postcode lottery” and “care in the community at any/all costs” approach they take.

Either way, it’s not your illness or symptoms that determine what kind of treatment you get. Whether it’s an eating disorder or something completely different (cancer, diabetes, a broken bone), in the UK it’s about spending as little money as possible to stop you racking up a huge bill to the Government. In the US it’s about what insurance you have and whether that person sitting at the admin desk in the insurance office decides whether or not today is your lucky day (I wonder if they use some kind of magic-8 ball system? Or a spin-the-bottle type game each time a claim comes through?..)

Don’t get me wrong. There are huge benefits to both systems too. I have seen some excellent doctors in both the UK and US. I’ve had some superb treatment both sides of the pond. I’ve met genuinely caring and compassionate people who really DO want to help patients. But they sadly seem to be few and far between.

Just my $0.02. feel free to disagree.


* quite how you make use of being held down and having someone stick a tube up your nose, I don’t know

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