In a recent blog post that went viral, American gynecologist Jen Gunter made sweeping declarations about the superiority of the British National Health Service, the government-run, taxpayer-funded system that provides medical care throughout the United Kingdom.
What inspires her impassioned stance? Years of research into the pros and cons of each system? Extensive experiences with the NHS as well as the U.S. system? Not quite.
On a recent visit to the United Kingdom, Gunter’s cousin twisted her ankle. Gunter accompanied her to an emergency room. The wonderful staff, who didn’t ask for payment, politely and promptly treated her cousin. (Presumably lost on Gunter was the fact that her cousin had already paid out the nose in taxes to the NHS for her treatment.) There might have been unicorns involved—it’s not clear.
She then juxtaposes this one interaction against the very real problems facing the U.S. system, declaring the NHS the winner. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of me saying I had a great trip to the doctor in America, therefore the NHS sucks.
The NHS Is No Model System, Folks
What Gunter and other champions of the British model fail to note — or quite possibly aren’t aware of — is that the NHS has some serious problems of its own. The system is 2.45 billion pounds (roughly $3 billion) in debt. Doctors are again threatening to strike over a new government contract that would require them to provide more extensive care (i.e., work more) on the weekends. (They rightly argue that they are overworked already.) The waiting list for routine operations has reached 3.34 million people.
But, you know, Gunter’s cousin got codeine almost immediately for her ankle, so therefore the NHS is outstanding.
It wasn’t a surprise that her post went viral, although when news outlets such as MSN began running excerpts from it as irrefutable proof of the superiority of socialized medicine, they made serious asses of themselves.
Americans frustrated by outrageous medical costs, obstacles to care, and statistics that contrast our system unfavorably with health care in other developed countries are rightly looking at the alternatives. Yet many do not observe that these studies often compare apples to steel-toed boots regarding the sheer size and diversity of the populace the U.S. system serves. I suggest we look beyond anecdotes provided by tourists such as Gunter when making comparisons.
Socialized Care Is Substandard, Rationed Care
There are very real gaps in the care socialized medicine provides. Gunter and others like her fail to address, or possibly learn in the first place, what these are. An example near and dear to my heart is the lack of preventive care provided under many of these systems. In the United Kingdom, where I lived off and on for seven years, you don’t have “well visits.” You see a doctor only once a problem is apparent. This never really bothered me until I became a mother.
For the first seven months of my son’s life, I was essentially on my own in fostering his health. A lactation consultant lectured me on the evils of bottle feeding, and a midwife weighed him two days after he was born, but that was it. My son didn’t have a pediatrician. He saw the same doctor I did, a man who admitted he knew little about babies and would Google my questions.
The difference when we moved to the United States was stark. Right away my son’s pediatrician noted he had weak muscle tone and was behind in several key areas of development. After an MRI, it was determined he had autism. He started a rigorous course of treatment including speech, physical, occupational, and feeding therapy. He is now incredibly high-functioning, which would not have been the case had his condition been spotted later on.
When my American-born daughter presented with the same issues, an MRI revealed she had neuroblastoma, a form of pediatric cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and numerous surgeries and is now a healthy six-year-old. Her oncologist told me she is often disheartened when she attends international conferences and talks to European doctors forced to rely on outdated protocols when treating patients because they haven’t been able to convince the government it’s worth spending more on newer therapies.
The preventive care built into our system made all the difference for my kids. Unlike Gunter, I won’t now declare the system “superior.” It has way too many problems to earn that title. But I would suggest that in seeking alternatives, our nation work on building a system that eliminates flaws, not simply shifts to different ones.