Friday, 18 January 2008

Bedside manners

I had dinner with a very good French friend who was in hospital in Paris recently for a minor operation. It was not life-threatening but boy's stuff so a tad embarrassing, but he was so angry any bashfulness went out of the window. It was, he said: "an example of everything that is wrong with the French health system".

In short: he goes to his GP who diagnoses the problem and refers him to a specialist surgeon. The specialist-surgeon confirms the GP's diagnosis and says it requires an operation but seems more interested in finding out if our friend has a good 'mutuelle' - a kind of private insurance - to cover his higher than usual fees and pay for a private room at a private hospital, than in explaining what the operation involves or the hoped-for results and possible consequences. Given that this operation involved taking a scalpel to parts of the body very dear to our concerned friend this was not very 'sympa' to say the least. Then, the night before the operation, our friend arrives at the private hospital designated by the specialist-surgeon to discover he is expected to sign a legal form saying the procedure has been fully explained to him by same surgeon. It had not, but he signs anyway fearing he will be refused admission if he refuses. His 'private room', costing 205 euros (£152) a night turns out to be the size of a large cupboard, and dinner - lukewarm soup, shepherd's pie and a plastic tub of apple purée (no wine - do not believe what they tell you about French hospital food ) is served at 6.30pm. At 10.30pm as he is trying to get some sleep - there being little else to do - a nurse comes to take his blood pressure and shortly afterwards a second nurse arrives and orders him to shave himself. I will spare you the details; suffice to say it was pure Carry-On Nurse only less funny and much more painful.

After the operation the surgeon pays a brief visit. He does not hang around to answer our anxious friend's even more anxious questions but says he will explain all the following day when "you can pay my bill". He arrives the next day with a bill, not for 700 euros (£520) as previously advised, but for 2,000 euros (£1,488). Seeing our friend's jaw drop, the specialist-surgeon says: "It's OK. I've checked with your mutuelle and they will pay." Our friend hands over a cheque but after the doctor disappears he discovers the reference number for the operation, which he has specifically requested several times and is necessary for the medical fees to be refunded, is not on the bill. Since then the specialist-surgeon has been unreachable by telephone so our friend does not even know if he will be reimbursed. When I saw him he was feeling rotten, both physically and psychologically; in discomfort and worried silly about the unexplained surgery as well as increasingly convinced that somehow he or the system had been had.

It was not the worst hospital horror story I have heard. A French girl friend was in a Paris clinic in labour with her first child at the age of 42 when doctors decided she needed an emergency C-section. As she was prepared for the operation the surgeon slapped her thigh and said: "My, just look at those broken veins...that's what you get having a baby at your age." It would have been appalling enough had he said this just once, but just in case she had not heard him - after all she was in quite a lot of pain and distress - he repeated it four times.

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