I must be prophetic. After raising the spectre of paying a heavy financial price for a minor sports injury in the US, I fractured the middle finger of my right hand only days later wile playing Gaelic football. My interactions with the health care system had so far been limited to amazement of the low cost of a wisdom-tooth removal. Now, having visited an ER, a GP and an orthopedic surgeon all within a week, I feel that I can openly declare the US system a failure in comparison.
First, let’s talk about costs. My ER visit totaled 53,000KW (US$1 is roughly equal to 1,000KW) and included both X-rays and a three-day prescription for painkillers and anti-inflammatories. This was the single most expensive visit to a medical professional. I then went to my GP, who took X-rays and passed them on to the orthopedic surgeon. That cost something like 7,000KW. The surgeon took one extra X-ray to get a different angle, then replaced my bulky arm cast with a finger splint. 11,000KW. Now I have had two visits on top of that. One more X-ray to check progress, plus physical therapy (ice pack and lasers): 10,000KW. Today, just physical therapy: 7,000W. So far my total cost for breaking a finger has been under US$100 and includes several trips to a private specialist, located in a city famous for its per capita income.
Next let’s talk about efficiency. At the ER I was admitted immediately upon provision of my Resident Alien card. They didn’t even have a waiting room. They sat me down, found a doctor whose English was up to snuff (or who was confident enough to speak to me, not sure which) and in less than 40 minutes I had been X-rayed, casted, and sent out the door. My GP’s waiting room is run like a bank or post office: Grab a number, wait your turn. X-rayed and out the door in under 45 minutes. At the surgeon’s office, instead of grabbing a number, I am in the computer and my name is displayed on a wall monitor, along with my place in the queue. When the doctor is ready for me, he hits a button and my name flashes up, read aloud by the computer. (The future is here and it sounds like Stephen Hawking has a hot sister.) Including my physical therapy, I was out of the office on Saturday morning in under 45 minutes.
In most of these cases, my doctors spoke a level of English far surpassing their daily need for the language. My ER experience didn’t quite meet this standard but the doctors here still knew all the relevant medical terms and were able to inform and instruct me clearly, with no ambiguity. Could the same be said for an American doctor confronted with a Spanish-speaking patient?
My publicly provided insurance policy pays for half of my medical costs. So in case anyone wants to know the “real” cost of these treatments so far, double the amounts. Still shockingly cheap for an American who spent half of the last decade uninsured.
My only complaint would be that my medical records aren’t fully portable and transferable. My X-rays at the ER should have been available to my GP and surgeon. Then I wouldn’t have had to irradiate my middle finger several times, nor would I have had to explain the injury to each individual doctor. Whatever. At least with Korea’s system I have a first-world complaint instead of third-world options.