Before I moved to Wales, I checked whether I needed to have an insurance in the UK. I found out that the UK runs the NHS, a free healthcare system. My mum worried because she had heard (on the news) that the NHS had some issues, but I waved her worries away. Surely, it couldn’t be that bad and I didn’t think I was going to need a doctor anyway. I arrived in Wales feeling completely at ease. I could access the doctors for free and had been signed up within a week of arrival. Everything seemed okay until I actually needed the doctors.
During my time in Wales, I visited the doctors for several different problems but I will focus on the most recent one as I can compare it with the treatment that I received in the Netherlands after the doctors in Wales failed me.
Treatment by the NHS in Wales
In March 2018, I injured my left thumb by overstretching it by trying to catch a basketball. For two weeks, I didn’t go to the doctor because I didn’t want to bother anyone with a potentially non-existing problem. Maybe my thumb would be okay on its own? But after two weeks there had been little to no improvement so I finally decided to go to the doctor.
The doctor I saw had a look at my thumb. He didn’t really touch it or anything, he just had a brief look. He concluded that if I took ‘these’ pills, my thumb would be healed in a week and I decided I wouldn’t question it. He was a doctor so surely he would know, right? I actively stopped myself from being sceptical (which I usually am). So I collected the pills from the pharmacy and went home. Then, when I wanted to take one I noticed that they were Antacids. Wait. Antacids? I googled because I didn’t quite believe that I had been given the wrong pills. Of course, Google told me what the leaflet did. Antacids stop neutralise the acid in your stomach; they do not cure thumbs…
Naturally, I returned to the doctor a week later and I asked to see a different doctor. When I came in I told him of the incident that had happened. He looked at me, checked my files and then closed them. ‘This can’t have happened here,’ he said. And before I could answer he started looking at and feeling my thumb. He asked if certain things hurt or not etc. and then concluded, and literally said that it could take a year for a thumb to heal and that he couldn’t do anything for me.
I broke down in front of him because he confirmed everything that I had experienced up until then. The doctors (in Aberystwyth, Wales) don’t take students seriously. Doctors don’t want to help you and they don’t care. I mean, in this instance, clearly, it’s no problem to live without a functioning thumb for an entire year. I mean, it only means that you can’t tie your shoelaces (unless you are one of the special ones who can do it with one hand – teach me please!), struggle to put your hair up, struggle while doing the dishes, struggle to close your coat, struggle to take throw-ins during football matches etc. Clearly, this wasn’t a problem that needed to be fixed or even acknowledged.
So, as a last resort, I went to A&E and claimed that I had only injured my thumb the day before. They made an x-ray and concluded that it hadn’t been broken. They also told me that it should be fixed within a week, so I asked them what to do if it wouldn’t be fixed within a week (as it hadn’t) and they said that I should go to the doctor… In other words, I hit a dead end. I got a brace from my football coach as he happened to work in the hospital but that’s all the help I received. And the help I received didn’t come from the NHS. It came from my football coach.
Luckily enough, my dad’s girlfriend is a doctor and after this whole ordeal, she tried to diagnose me from a distance (I mean since I lived in Wales and she lived in the Netherlands). She concluded that I might suffer from a ski-thumb. If treated quickly it can be cured within a month, but by then a whole month of nothing had already passed. I tried to talk to a doctor about how I could have a ski-thumb and he was not interested. So I just learned to live without using my thumb, even though it stayed as inconvenient as it sounds.
Treatment in the Netherlands
I returned to the Netherlands in July 2018. I needed to register with my local council and open an insurance in order to access the healthcare system. Then I needed a reference from a doctor and an appointment with the Expert Clinic, which specialises in hand treatment. Then finally, I was able to see a hand specialist on Friday the 3rd of August.
They kind of laughed in disbelief when I said that this injury had happened back in March. I told them that I knew it wasn’t broken but they made pictures to check anyway. After confirming that my thumb wasn’t broken, he started feeling my thumb and comparing it with my other thumb. He concluded that my muscles had been overstretched (ski-thumb) and then when he started comparing my two thumbs he noticed that my injured one is a lot shorter. Apparently, my left thumb hadn’t grown all the way like my right thumb has and as a result, my left thumb is more susceptible to injuries.
He told me that I could see a physiotherapist right away, and so I did. I told him that I only had five weeks left before I would move to Scotland and he made a little bit of a face but then said ‘okay, we can do our best to get your thumb up and running in five weeks. I’ll see you twice a week then, starting on Monday.’
Up until that point I had been really scared of seeing the expert and/or physio because I was expecting them to tell me that they couldn’t help me, or wouldn’t help me, or tell me that nothing was wrong and that I’d been imagining it all. However, they didn’t. I truly felt like they took me seriously and together we set up a plan to treat my thumb.
The difference between the NHS and the healthcare system in the Netherlands is that you have to pay a certain amount per month. (Something between 100 – 160 euros). You can take a basic insurance which covers the basic things, like being able to go to the doctor. If you want mental health treatment, physiotherapy or alternative therapy you will have to specify this in your insurance and this means that your monthly fee will go up. On top of that, you will also carry ‘your own risk’ which comes to 380 euros a year. Costs that fall within ‘your own risk’ are things like medicines or things that you are insured for but which are at first regarded as costs that fall under ‘your own risk’. Once you go over the amount of your own risk, everything else will be covered by your insurance.
In my case, the initial diagnoses by the thumb expert will fall under the costs of my own risk. I didn’t insure myself for physiotherapy and therefore, I will have to pay the appointments straight up. In other words, I am paying money so that my thumb will be treated.
Having to pay money sucks, especially since I have been used to free treatment in the UK (and healthcare costs in the Netherlands need to go down because not everyone can afford them!). However, I rather pay money and have a functioning thumb, than that I get ‘treated’ for free and have to spend the rest of my life without a functioning left thumb.
Let me know about your experience with the NHS. Has it been better? Is it better in different parts of the UK?
I am aware that it is possible to pay for private healthcare in the UK. However, I have no idea how this works and how expensive it actually is and whether this is affordable. It might be something I have to look into at some point.
This is a list of other problems that I ran into in the last three years and where I felt that the NHS handled inadequately:
- Mental health problems (I went to the doctors in my first year of university and I was only provided with proper help at the end of my third year when my teacher helped arrange an appointment and attended the appointment with me)
- 24/7 Constant ongoing headache which lasted 2.5 months before a CT scan happened. It came back negative and the doctor did not know what to do after that. The doctor did not solve my problem and instead, an Osteopath did (who I hadn’t been referred to or anything.)
- I had a period which lasted for a month and the doctor did not want to see me. They only wanted to take samples once I had been bleeding for 3 months straight (sorry gross, I know lol) and then I had to wait another month and a half before I could see a specialised professional (who did fix the problem).
- I needed a doctor’s note to prove that I suffered from social anxiety so the university could put special circumstances in place in regards to holding presentations. The doctor I saw told me that I should go to Church and practise speaking the sermon in front of people. This was how I could get rid of my anxiety.
- I started suffering frequent migraines and I was given co-codamol. When I ran out, I went to a pharmacist to buy new ones. She was shocked when she heard how many co-codamol I had used in the short amount of time and she wouldn’t sell me more. Instead, she told me to go back to the doctor to get proper pills against migraines. I went back to the doctor and asked about these migraine pills and they refused to give them to me. They sold me more co-codamol.
- After being absolutely sleep deprived for a long time, I went to the doctor and was given a leaflet with tips on how to sleep better (click here to see the leaflet.) A good while later, the doctor realised that I indeed had a severe insomnia problem and gave me Mirtazapine. They didn’t work and made me feel incredibly dizzy during the day, but she wouldn’t give me others until I had tried them for a full 6 weeks. Eventually, I got pills that worked and as she prescribed them to me she said that I could increase the dosage if it became necessary. When I ran out after less than a month (due to increasing the dosage) I was told that I could not get new ones until the full month had been over, as the doctor had not noted that I could indeed take more than once a day.