Britain's Shining Example of Health Care

How does Britain’s public health system ease the pain of suffering families?

September 21, 2009

How does Britain's public health system ease the pain of suffering families?

During a recent trip to the United States, I was appalled by how many stories there were warning Americans about the nightmare of Britain's National Health Service.

I'm an American who has had a great deal of experience with universal health care in Great Britain.

I know that many in the United States tend to look askance at the National Health Service (NHS) and the prospect of "socialized medicine.” They shouldn’t. While my own example doesn’t necessarily speak for the whole system, it is real, factual and not atypical.

Three years ago I was struggling with every parent’s nightmare: a desperately ill child. My infant son Dillon was diagnosed with a serious brain condition. For undetermined reasons, Dillon’s brain developed completely wrong in the womb.

The severity of his condition meant he would have little chance of ever reaching any milestones, as he suffered from severe epilepsy and had a shortened life expectancy. The next 14 months were a nightmare.

Our lives were consumed with trying to get control of Dillon’s seizures, coping with a host of devastating problems triggered by his malfunctioning brain and somehow carving out time to focus on our happy and healthy two-year-old.

After surviving a winter characterized by frequent health scares and chest infections, Dillon died of pneumonia at the age of 14 months.

Though we were completely unlucky in the tragic hand dealt to Dillon, we were lucky in one respect: He was born in Britain. I moved to England 13 years ago. Dillon was born in a North London hospital, and my partner and I found ourselves reluctantly bound up in Britain’s NHS, which we'd had little contact with before.

To our surprise, it never let us down. In fact the NHS provided just about everything possible to make our lives better.

Dillon lived much of his life as an in-patient in the same hospital where he was born. He almost always had his own room, full of photos of those who loved him. The hospital was a ten minute drive away. We visited him daily and took him home when he was well enough. Our home soon filled with duplicate medical equipment.

We never paid a penny towards the cost of his care. We never filled out a single medical form. We never saw any evidence of a decision made about his care that was not driven by his and our own best interests.

It’s difficult to say how different our experience would have been had we lived in the United States. While American medical care is in many respects among the best in the world, everything, of course, would have depended on our insurance coverage.

My partner and I aren’t married, and we both work as freelancers — a lifestyle it is difficult to maintain in the United States when raising a family.

For most of Dill’s life, I was a member of a Yahoo support group, made up of some 200 families around the world who were struggling with Dill’s condition. U.S. members had a recurring concern and it was all about insurance.

Their sometimes desperate, usually middle-of-the-night messages focused on topics that, thankfully, we did not have to face while Dillon was under the care of the NHS: who was covered for what; how you could claim; how to work the system and how to cope when you had no insurance.

There were huge discrepancies in Medicaid. For those who were able to get coverage, the form-filling was soul destroying. Many of the families had to routinely do fundraising — and more than one wanted to emigrate to England specifically for the health care.

Had we had to deal with any of this, on top of the daily stress we underwent with Dillon, we would have had difficulty surviving as a family. Ours was a tragic year, a sad one, one we would not wish on anyone. But it was made much better by our local health system, not worse. Is that too much to ask?

Of course, there are problems with health care in Britain. The money simply doesn’t stretch far enough, and people suffer as a result. Treatments have to sometimes be rationed, and difficult choices made.

But nobody is talking about changing the system itself. It is based on a principal of universal health care, a fundamental tenet of an enlightened society.

As Americans move forward to try to mend a profoundly broken system, Britain's NHS should be a shining example — not a nightmare scenario.

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Takeaways

For those in the United States who were able to get Medicaid coverage, the form-filling was soul destroying. Many of the families had to routinely do fundraising.

Ours was a tragic year, a sad one, one we would not wish on anyone. But it was made much better by our local health system, not worse.

We never paid a penny towards the cost of his care. We never saw any evidence of a decision made about his care that was not driven by his and our own best interests.