x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hospital horrors: gold teeth, bribery and terrible food

Single in the city With all the discussion about the US president Barack Obama's health care bill, I can't help but wonder if other countries' medical systems also need serious reform.

With all the discussion about the US president Barack Obama's health care bill, I can't help but wonder if other countries' medical systems also need serious reform, especially when doctor and dentist horror stories remain one of the most popular dinner discussions. Besides the obvious reasons, many members of my own family fear getting sick and ending up in hospital, which we call the "shortcut to death", because of previous experiences.

When my great uncle died from "medical complications", or so it said on his death certificate, after an accident at a coal mine, the family received his personal effects from the hospital: an empty wallet, his wedding band, a chequered green and white handkerchief and a gold molar tooth. I remember just staring at that tooth as my uncle's widow polished it and placed it in her jewellery box. She said the doctor who took care of my uncle was honest for not keeping it.

But of course, my uncle's cash was gone, and so was his ID card. That was what patients expected when they got sick and went to one of Poland's communist-era hospitals. Now that Poland is part of the EU, where rights to health care are recognised in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, publicly funded health care has improved. And if you have the money, you can opt for a private clinic or even go to another member state and get treatment there.

But of course, the reality is always more complicated and bureaucratic. My grandmother was recently severely injured in a hit-and-run accident, and we have been trying to get her transferred to a specialist hospital in Germany, but there is a lot of paperwork involved. In the meantime, as we wade through the process, my poor grandmother is suffering because she was picked up by an ambulance. They took her to a public hospital and, for some reason, are holding her there against our wishes.

But then again, I don't just want to pick on a former communist country that is still putting the pieces back together. Let me pick on Canada instead, with its decades of experience of a publicly funded health care system. I'll never forget how, a few winters ago, my sister collapsed onto the floor, paralysed in part of her body. With the hospital only next door and amid heavy snowfall, I carried her to the car and drove to the emergency room. Then the drama began, when I almost - for the first time in my life, and hopefully the last - punched a nurse.

Perhaps it was because of the shortage of doctors (especially family doctors in smaller towns) and nurses that the emergency room was packed with distressed people. There was a man with a knife in his leg, and he told me he had been sitting there for at least two hours. My sister and I had to wait almost eight hours before a doctor saw her, and trust me, it felt much longer. I argued with everyone and, when I offered to pay to have her examined because I was terrified she might be suffering further damage internally, they threatened to arrest me for attempted bribery.

My sister eventually was put on a waiting list for an MRI examination, scheduled in the next six to eight months. To make a long story short, my sister was flown to Saudi Arabia and was treated there by a Lebanese doctor. Yes, it was expensive. We had international insurance but it only paid a fraction of the costs. What I like about Gulf states such as the UAE, is that its citizens have the option of a public hospital, where health care is provided for everybody. For those who can afford it, private hospital care and treatment abroad is available, often with financial assistance from the government. Most expatriates get health insurance from their employers, or at least they should.

One of my relatives received some of the best care in the world at the hands of one of France's top doctors. Still, she contracted a serious infection, and has been confined to the hospital for an additional six months. In my own experience with French hospitals, I complained about the lack of air conditioning and horrible food, but overall the service was great and prompt. Everywhere in the world, you have good and bad doctors. Regardless of the health care system in any particular place, you could end up with a horror story.