Tuesday, March 06, 2007

My First Experience with the French Health Care System

After being sick for a long time, I decided that enough was enough and that I needed to see a doctor. I found a list of English-speaking doctors at the U.S. Embassy website and called the one with the most Anglo-sounding name, figuring that would improve the odds that he would be a native speaker.

(This is not xenophobia, by the way; my French is adequate for the superficial encounters of day-to-day life, but not really good enough for the type of conversation you have with a doctor--description of symptoms, explanation from the doctor of what he or she thinks is going on, instructions about taking medication. Not being sure what type of bread I'm buying or where, exactly, the cut of meat I've just purchased comes from on the cow: not a big deal. Not being sure if I understand how to take prescription medication: possibly a big deal.)

Well, this was by far the most positive experience I have ever had with a doctor. I called this morning, spoke to the doctor himself--he turned out to be British--and made an appointment for the afternoon. By contrast, when I had pneumonia last fall at home, I had to beg to get an appointment that same week, and only got one because I stumbled upon a facet of the system (admittedly a university health service, but still) that they do not advertise: nurses on call to offer advice when you haven't been able to get an appointment but need help. (The necessity for this is a serious problem, but being able to talk to someone competent is awesome no matter if the reason she exists at all is because the system is incompetent. Being able to talk to a nurse meant being able to talk to someone actually trained to know that what I was describing was serious.)

Anyway, to get back to today's experience in Paris: The doctor's office didn't look like an office as much as an apartment, which I had expected from reading I'd done. I had thought it would seem uncomfortable or strange, but in fact, it is so much nicer than the sterile environment of American doctors' offices. I'm already uncomfortable, possibly even in pain, and I don't need it amplified by sitting in a cold room surrounded by metal and plastic. Instead, I sat on a normal chair in a room with a beautiful wood-beam ceiling, wood floors, and art on the walls (and, yes, in one corner, the typical exam table and cabinets with doctor's-office supplies).

And, the best part: I spent a total of 55 euros for the appointment and for the medicine he prescribed (antibiotics and pain killers), which I was able to pick up three minutes after walking out the door at the pharmacy down the street--no waiting for it to be called in, no waiting for it to be filled. Not to mention that 80% of the cost will be reimbursed by the French government. (This step is, unfortunately, where I think French bureaucracy will step in and take the bloom off the rose . . . but I don't mind it so much when we're talking about 44 euros instead of double that.)

If going to the doctor was always like this, I might not have waited two weeks before going to see one!

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