How American Health Care Fails

(This place doesn’t look like anything special from the outside, but the inside is wonderful).

This is a personal story.  I am not writing this as a health care expert, economist or politician.  Rather, I am simply writing this post as an American who has been treated by doctors in three different countries on three different continents – the United States of America, Ireland and Japan.   These experiences have shown me ways in which the American health care system fails in comparison to many other industrialized countries.

In college, I was probably as healthy as anyone could be.  I only saw the doctor twice – once when I came down with a nasty case of pink eye my junior year, and then for a routine check-up my senior year before I left for Ireland.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been as lucky in my mid-20s.  Last spring, a slew of health problems took me by surprise.  I had just quit my day job in a retail store, losing my health insurance, and was working as an intern at a business publication.  Much thanks to my cautious parents who taught me well, I luckily had the foresight to take out independent health insurance.  But by the summer’s end, I had paid about $2,500 out of my pocket in medical bills when some unexpected health matters occurred.

I am happy to say that all is fine now, but a health scare a few weeks ago took me back to last spring and summer, a very stressful time in my life.  I was worried about moving to Japan because I had been sick and was uncertain about my future.  After being cleared to go to Japan by my kind doctors, I decided to give Japan a try, and I am glad I moved here for the most part.   When I moved to Japan, I became a resident of Japan, and thus I am now covered under the country’s universal health care system.  When I researched Japan’s system a bit more, I read this enlightening Washington Post article by Blaine Harden.   In the article, Harden explains, “Japan has a system that costs half as much and often achieves better medical outcomes than its American counterpart…It does this by banning insurance company profits and limiting doctor fees.”

I am grateful for this system.

I didn’t think I would run into any more health problems, but one Sunday morning, one day before I had to decide about staying another year here or not, I woke up with the same problem that forced me to see a surgeon last year.  I was certain I had to see a doctor and was not looking forward to seeing  a physician who could not speak my language (nor I his or her language).  By the end of the school day, about 10 minutes before my appointment, I ended up bursting out in tears at my desk.

My kind supervisor drove me to see a general physician.  Luckily, my friend Adam, who works as a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) for the JET Programme and speaks Japanese very well, was there to help translate.  After waiting only about ten minutes, the doctor examined me and recommended I see a specialist.  “This is a good place to come if you have a cold or a stomach ache,” he said, per Adam’s translation.  Before leaving, I handed the front desk my health insurance card.  They processed my card, asked me to pay 1,000 yen (about 10 dollars) and gave me a receipt. End of my billing story.

I would have been lucky if that entire transaction took two months in the United States.

But I still had to see one more doctor.  I held back more tears as we drove about five minutes to a new office.  Everything inside was amazingly clean and efficient. I waited only about five minutes before seeing a kind doctor who examined me and took an image of the problem (something I had never seen in the U.S.).  He explained the problem and said that it’s not uncommon for my issue to keep re-occurring.  He said he could help relieve the pain through a small procedure that only took about five minutes.  He moved me to another chair and did the procedure very quickly.  Afterward, he explained what he had seen and prescribed me some antibiotics.

I walked out of the office feeling relieved.  I handed over my health insurance card, once more expecting to pay a larger amount.  I paid 2,000 yen (about 20 dollars) and received a receipt. I also got my medicine that exact moment at the same office.  No trekking to the pharmacist and having the order be called in.

Once again, I would have been lucky if that billing process took another two months in America.

In addition to my Japanese doctor experience, I had to see three doctors when I lived in Ireland.  When I compare all three experiences, I always come back to the same thought: there is something missing in America’s health care system.  In both Japan and Ireland, countries with public health systems, I had to pay very little money out of my pocket.  There was no complicated billing process, no worry about what doctor to see and no worry that I would have my bank account drained should something unexpected happen.

I know both Ireland’s and Japan’s health care systems are not without their flaws. Many people in Ireland still choose private insurance, and Japan’s system might not be economically feasible in the future.  I also understand that a universal system might not be economically possible to implement in a country the size of the United States, but I am hopeful that those who can’t afford good coverage get what they deserve in the near future – that is, that they receive the best care possible for any medical condition, and shouldn’t have to break a bank account to receive that treatment.  Obama’s heavily-debated health care reform bill is a step forward, and I am curious to see how much will change in the future.

The doctors I have seen in all three countries have been amazing individuals, and I am grateful for each and everyone of them.  But until I move back to the States, I am clutching my Japanese health insurance card like it’s gold.

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