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Testing Britain’s healtcare system


When your wife tells you she is pregnant for the first time, everyone knows that you will be elated. But the next step, how you deal with the impending burden of parenting, is different for everyone. For me, once that initial afterglow wore off, I began thinking of all the things we would not be able to do, once the latest addition to our family arrived. Top of the list was doing the working holiday stint. Like many of my counterparts back home, I have always had a romantic notion of the United Kingdom. It held the excitement of faraway places, and at the same time is so historically intertwined with Australia. So it was with much anticipation that my wife and I packed our bags.

We had done all of the necessary research about travelling while pregnant. When to and not to fly, what to bring, etc. And on that list was health care while in Britain. It was proudly proclaimed on the smarttraveller website (the official Oz government site) that Australia has a bilateral, reciprocal medicare agreement. Furthermore, a few of our English friends who had needed to use the health care system in Australia, had easily registered at medicare offices with out problem.

Once we arrived in the UK, it was a different story. No one would see us as a NHS patient (the UK equivalent of medicare) unless my wife or I was working. This defeats the need for a reciprocal agreement as anyone working here, from any country, can access the health care free. Only emergency treatment is taken care of under the NHS. Not only that, we had taken out travel insurance, but this too, is only under emergency situation. The problem for us was the routine antenatal care required, to ensure our baby’s health.

I’m sure you can imagine, the great deal of stress created by this situation. It was annoying that we had come to the UK expecting one thing, and receiving another. We decided to pay the 65 pounds for the doctor to see us. You would think that paying would open up doors to us. On another quick note, a gripe I have is the level of customer service in England. Everyone we’ve met since coming seems to be aware of this, but just as an example, when we went to the receptionist to advise her that we’d like to see the doctor and were willing to pay, she replied “But that doesn’t mean the doctor will see you”. In due course, he saw us, and may I add that neither before nor after us were people waiting to see him. This visit to the doctor, we knew was going to be expensive. But it was not value for money. What we got was very little medical advice. Rather, more advice on how to get on the NHS. Get a job we were told again – it would make everything smoother for us. Even if we were willing to put up the 5000 pounds for antenatal care, that didn’t mean that we’d be able to book a specialist in time for delivery. But if we get on the NHS, then everything would move smoothly. As an aside, we don’t and have never intended to stay in the UK to have our child, our return ticket was booked before we left, months prior to the expected date.

It seems that the healthcare workers in the UK feel as if all these Australians are coming over using their wonderful health care system and draining their resources. But what is the purpose of a reciprocal healthcare agreement? UK citizens can come to Australia, and register at the medicare office, for a medicare card, which gives them access to Australia’s healthcare, as if they are a resident. We Australians coming to the UK are not treated like we treat the poms.

It just so happens that my wife is a sonographer. For those of you not in the know, she is the person who does the ultrasound for expecting mothers, amongst other things. So, our knowledge of the health care system in Australia is more than the average traveller. For those of you thinking that Australians would come to the UK for better health care, we can assure you that that is not the case. The underlying principal for UK health care is to not waste resources. In Australia, even though we have our problems, it is about delivering the best care possible. An example of this, is that mothers here don’t get a blood test or scan until 12 weeks, because the government feels that it is a waste of money, until after this time, when miscarriage becomes less likely. There are no checks unless there is pain and little counselling. The other pregnant ladies we met at the obstetric A&E department had not even been advised by their GPs to get a blood test to confirm their pregnancies. I was absolutely astounded by this.

I realise that many will think that this story will probably never apply to them. This may not be the case. People that have diabetes, and would like to get their blood-sugar tested, or hypertensives who want to get their blood pressure checked. The list of possibilities would be exhaustive. Not exactly emergency cases, but if treated accordingly in a timely fashion could reduce stress, pain, even reduce treatment costs.

And an email to Australian consulate directed us to the department of health website, which seemed to confirm that we would be entitled to this care. Emails to the health minister and foreign affairs minister back home have gone unreplied. For a while, I was contemplating writing to the health minister in the UK, but if the elected representatives of your own country won’t listen, nothing was making me confident I’d have better luck here.

I come to the end of this, and wonder if those of you reading just feel that this is the rantings of an Australian whinger, the type that Australia is famous for. Maybe it is. My wife has found employment, and we are on the NHS. We saw our doctor for free this time and received a referral to the nearest public hospital for scans. Nevertheless, the smooth access to treatment is still not forthcoming. The hospital that my wife was referred to, has not, 2 and a half weeks after the referral, made her an appointment for her next scan, despite several phone calls to both the hospital and our new GP.

Maybe I should stop whinging. Maybe the health care is indiscriminate, being woeful for everyone in the UK.

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