Health care as abuse

I haven’t experienced medical care in Canada, but I did have a comically frustrating encounter in England that taught me all I need to know about their National Health Service -- a system that is both despised and fiercely defended by the quirky British.

While studying at a London university seven years ago, my supply of omeprazole (for heartburn) ran low. When I went to the nearest pharmacy to get more, I was told I required a prescription. Omeprazole is available over the counter in the U.S.

I visited a doctor’s office the next day to ask for a prescription. The waiting room was crowded. I made my request to a lady behind the counter.

“You need to make an appointment. Write your name here” -- indicating a sheet full of names -- "and wait until we call you.”

I took the only open seat and looked around me. A dozen people stared back. Then a screen above the reception desk came alive as a name scrolled across it. A man about my age stood up, identified himself at the desk, and was directed to a door on his left. Ten minutes later he came back through the door, checked in again at the reception desk, then left the building. Another name flashed onto the screen. Another patient rose from her seat.

Nearly two hours after my arrival at the doctor’s office, my name at last appeared on the screen and I presented myself at the reception desk.

“What’s your NHS number?” the lady asked from behind her desk.

“I don’t have one.”

A long stare let me know that I had just said something very bad.

“You need a number before you can make an appointment.”

“But I’m an American citizen studying at a local university. All I want is to get some omeprazole.”

“If you want an appointment you must provide the necessary information, including proof of your home address, and bring it back tomorrow.”

I went back the next day, determined to see this bizarre experience through to the end. With a polite smile I handed the documents to the lady at the reception desk. She asked me to take a seat and wait for my name to be called.

The room was not as crowded as the day before and it took only an hour before the magical screen summoned me. The lady behind the desk asked for my passport.

I did not have my passport with me. Nothing in the documentation indicated that I needed to prove my resident status. 

“I will be back in an hour,” I said.

Returning with passport in hand I tried to hand it to the lady at the desk.

“Take a seat and wait for your name to be called,” she said.

The wait was only about 45 minutes before my passport and visa was processed. Then came the bad news.

 “You can expect to receive your NHS card by post in a week or two.”

I went home. Took my last omeprazole tablet. Waited two weeks. Then armed at last with an NHS number I headed back to the doctor’s office, where I waited for almost two hours before presenting myself to the lady at the reception desk. The appointment was set for the following week.

When my name was called after the usual wait I was shown into a small room where a not unkind nurse told me she needed to check my blood pressure, temperature, and pulse. She was quick and efficient about it. Not sure where to go next, I asked for directions to the doctor’s room.

“You can’t see him now,” she said. “You will need to make an appointment for that.”

I finally got the omeprazole a week later, from a dispensary attached to the doctor’s office after he signed a prescription. He did not examine me. Our meeting took two minutes.