I'm in London at the moment, readying myself to get back to Washington DC to dive back into US political madness tomorrow. I've been here for a couple of weeks and have spent a couple of days going in and out of St Thomas' Hospital in Lambeth (the hospital where I was born) to tend to my wrist that I broke in two places a few weeks back while practicing Jiu Jitsu.
The only reason I know my wrist is broken is because I had no reservations about going to hospital over here and getting an X-ray. The last time I went to the emergency room in the US, I was charged over $6000 for an ray, a couple of stitches and a tetanus shot.
I actually broke my wrist in the US, but figured I was better off not going to the emergency room given how much it would cost. I didn't think it was broken (I've broken quite a few bones in my time, and this didn't seem quite as bad) so went a good few weeks ignoring the pain and carrying on as best I could. It got too much to handle after the trans-atlantic flight, so I booked a doctors appointment at a local clinic in London, and got a referral to the hospital on the same day. I went in, waited for about 45 minutes, had an Xray taken, got it diagnosed on the spot then went to see a hand specialist (which took another 45 minutes of waiting). The specialist gave me a splint and asked if I needed a painkiller prescription and I was sent on my way. I had a follow up appointment with the specialist two weeks later who told me it was healing well, then sent me to the physiotherapist next door who gave me some exercises to do to recover strength and function in my wrist. Overall, I spent around 4 hours in hospital, received world class care, and was only asked my name and family address in the UK. No bills, no proof of insurance, and virtually no paper work.
According to US government data from 2008, the average visit to the Emergency Room cost $922 - almost double the weekly median wage in America. Knowing you could be down two weeks wages for a trip to the ER is a truly scary prospect for most people who have an incredibly tough time balancing their costs as it is. The money I had to fork out for my xray and tetanus shot a couple of years ago back in Los Angeles has put me off getting medical treatment in America for good - and I have insurance. The care is fantastic, but the costs are so ridiculous it makes going to hospital the absolute last resort, when in reality, it should be routine if you have a real concern.
I'm not sure what I would have done had I not come back to the UK for Christmas. I have a history of not taking medical emergencies seriously enough (it usually takes me a good week or so to get broken bones seen to), and there's a strong chance I would have displaced the bones in my wrist by continuing to put pressure on it while ignoring the pain. By that time, I would have had no choice but to seek medical care which would have been far, far more expensive. Bone resetting and invasive surgery is not cheap in America, and on top of ER fees, I could well have been $10,000 down with deformed wrist. Of course much of it would have been my own fault, but the point remains. Fear of financial loss is a major reason why serious conditions are often ignored in America. Many people skip doctor's appointments, medical tests and under medicate in order to save on cost, playing roulette with their health so they can afford to house and feed themselves.
This would be unheard of in the UK. Healthcare is not viewed as a luxury over here - it is viewed as a basic human right. Of course there are measures the government takes to stop costs running out of control, and there are certainly major problems with the system as a whole. But it is free for anyone to use regardless of income, and everyone in Britain feels a heck of a lot safer because of it.
Obamacare goes a long way in reassuring Americans they have access to affordable insurance, but when many health care plans for those without a lot of money have up to a $12,500 deductible, it still isn't particularly comforting given it could sink them financially.
The British healthcare system saves countless lives by being available to anyone at any time, for free. Sick people are also more expensive when not treated for extended periods of time, so getting them seen to quickly helps make the NHS one of the most efficient deliverers of healthcare in the world, and a model for everyone, including America, to learn from.