Adventures in the Italian Healthcare System

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Special for The Greanville Post & Cyrano’s Journal

Even confused, often corrupt, bumbling Italy has a much better healthcare service than America.

Even confused, often corrupt, bumbling Italy has a much better healthcare service than America, and a much less savage capitalism.

(Gaither Stewart from Rome)  I just returned from my national health doctor and the next door pharmacy. The doctor graciously dressed an inflamed, very deep cut on my right hand and gave me a prescription for an antibiotic to avoid infection. Total time, five minutes. Cost: zero. 

An Italian health service card. That's all you need.

An Italian health service card. That’s all you need. Italy ranks 2nd in the world in quality, right after France.

Then I went to the pharmacy where a beautiful pharmacist filled my National Health Service prescription. Total time: five minutes. Cost: euro 2.71, a little over $3.00, of patient participation which in my case will be reimbursed by a private journalist insurance.

I returned home after about 45 minutes in total, with the antibiotic and my hand well-dressed and re-bandaged and my spirits bolstered.

Now, I must go backwards a week to describe my accident that took me to the doctor and pharmacy today. Last week I had a tremendous fall in the semi-darkness in the parking lot of my usual supermarket. I stumbled over something and fell headlong among some cement blocks and other mysterious objects and woke up flat on my face with a brutal pain in my forehead.

The Italian National Health Service was instituted in 1978.

The Italian National Health Service was instituted in 1978.

I finally managed to climb to my feet just as a lady stopped her car nearby, rushed toward me asking if I needed help and gave me a handful of Kleenex to wipe the blood off my forehead, at which point however I realized the blood was flowing from my hand. I supposed the wound came from a piece of broken glass; I was in a dark part of the parking lot where I shouldn’t have been in the first place in order to throw from a low wall to a trash bin a bag of trash from home that I had forgotten to dump in the proper place.

At that point I staggered into the supermarket where I know most of the employees. Several of them rushed toward me aghast. And what a sight I was! Dazed and covered in blood, the knob on my forehead already huge, and most likely a wild expression on my face. they rushed me into a room where the manager delicately washed my face and told me I had to get to a hospital. I adamantly refused that offer while the fish market manager began wrapping my hand with something and another person pressed an ice pack on the swelling and expanding bump on my forehead. As I gradually returned to the real world, I agreed that they could call a first aid ambulance which could then either medicate me on the spot or take me to an ER.

Meanwhile I staggered around the market, in my blood-stained head bandana and hand, still unaware of my damaged rib cage and right leg, stubbornly buying what I had come for, milk and bread, and especially the wine.

Within about five minutes the ambulance arrived just as I’d finished paying with a card at a check-out counter. The first aid people dressed in orange and black slickers rushed me and the wine out the door to the ambulance, sat me inside where a male nurse proceeded to medicate me. He cleaned and dressed my right hand, said I needed stitches—but maybe not—then wrapped a wide swath of gauze around my head so that I looked like a war bombing victim, while a second ambulance man continued to converse with me about this and that. I realized later his job was to make sure I didn’t have a concussion. While the nurse wrote up a long form with data from my national health card, the other continued talking and the female driver turned up the pop music and the service radio crackled and the people whose cars were blocked by the ambulance waited patiently and, to my surprise, uncomplaining. Total intervention time for the first-aid ambulance, I would guess, 45 minutes. Cost to me: zero.

[pullquote]Health care spending in Italy accounted for 9.0% of GDP in 2006 (about $2,600 per capita) of which about 75% is public,[1] slightly more than the average of 8.9% in OECD countries.[2] In 2000 Italy’s healthcare system was regarded, by World Health Organization‘s ranking, as the 2nd best in the world after France,[3] and according to the CIA World factbook, Italy has the world’s 10th highest life expectancy.[4] Thanks to its good healthcare system, the life expectancy at birth in Italy was 80.9 years in 2004, which is two years above the OECD average.[2](Wikipedia)[/pullquote]

After the nurse escorted me to me car and placed my shopping bag on a seat, reassured himself that I was in condition to drive, I went back into the supermarket to thank everyone and was met by waves and smiles and a left hand shake with the manager.

Now even though the Italian National Health Service might not be considered the best in Europe, today it is for me. Once back home this morning from doctor and pharmacy, I raced to the computer to record this experience. In Italy’s continual economic emergency the first places budgetary leaders look to make cuts are in the national health program and social security but it resists.

The National Health Services of Germany, France, Switzerland are considered among the best, though every European country offers excellent services, from Scandinavia to Malta, from Great Britain (despite recent cutbacks still among the best) to Russia and Bulgaria. The countries I have lived in, including Mexico and Argentina offer national health services, as do I’m certain all Latin American countries. The health service in Canada has long been considered among the best in the world. Rich Latin Americans even fly to Cuba for delicate heart surgery. The black hole in the world of national health services is the USA, reputedly the world’s richest country which spends proportionately much much more for far worse health protection than any other world country.

Italians as a rule are convinced that their national health service is the best, the elimination of which could literally cause a revolution. Most certainly no politician could ever be elected to any office in Italy based on a program of elimination of Italy’s single payer National Health Service. In fact, most political programs include protection and improvement of the national health service. The thing about a single payer (that is the state) health service is that once in place, it becomes the right it truly is and no people will ever willingly surrender that right.

Misinformed and ignorant people in the USA into whose DNA disastrous negative opinions about single payer national health services have been inculcated by crassly greedy and evil political leaders and pharmaceutical and insurance companies will raise the usual objections. But anyone who has lived a life in places where largely free health care is assured takes it for granted that the state guarantees the protection of the health of all its peoples.

Longtime Rome resident Gaither Stewart is TGP’s European correspondent. The author of many novels and essays, his latest is The Fifth Sun, with a plot spanning Italy and Mexico.  The book was published by Punto Press.

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