After one length of the hotel pool I realised I’d forgotten my earplugs. I got out, but it was already too late; after an hour the itching and numbness started. By the next day I had throbbing pain in my ear and neck. As a sufferer from otitis externa, or ‘swimmer’s ear’, I knew it was time to rush to the doctor for some antibiotics. Sadly for me, I was on holiday on the Polish Baltic coastline. Everyone seemed to be sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with a slogan in English, but I soon found I was a world away from the security of the NHS.
My Polish friends had planned an excursion by car if the weather was bad; if it was sunny we would spend the day by the low, tideless sea. Because of my missing bud of silicone we had to find a doctor. I thought this would be easy enough, as, after all, we’re all in the EU and far removed from Communist times when Polish medics had to be bribed to give any assistance.
The NHS website says reassuringly: ‘Each country’s health system is different and might not include all the things you would expect to get free of charge from the NHS. This means you may have to make a contribution to the cost of your care. Your EU health card will enable you to access public healthcare provided in Poland at a reduced cost, or sometimes for free.’
The first receptionist at a local clinic had a face as warm as Baltic sediment. She said they wouldn’t treat anyone without an appointment and there was no point in waiting. We asked about other doctors in the area — she said it would be the same there. There was a walk-in clinic but she didn’t know where it was. She refused to look online for us.
My Polish friend told me that a GP might not be any good anyway, as they don’t examine patients or write prescriptions, only refer them on to specialists. She said I would have to find a ‘laryngologist’. That sounded absurd to me. All I wanted was some antibiotics and then we could get on with enjoying the day. Despite increasing heat in the car, there was a definite frostiness between us as she insisted it was impossible for one doctor to treat a whole range of conditions. It was obvious to her that each problem had to have specialist care. I felt she didn’t believe that GPs even existed, but were just a product of my fevered brain.
As we drove towards a bigger town, we saw a sign for the walk-in place. The pain in my head felt as if there was something inside trying to gnaw its way out. When another ratchet-faced nurse said that the doctor was delayed but would see me if we could wait I could have cried with joy. I felt optimistic as I sat on a low bench in the clinic’s dark corridor. I became more anxious as it filled with people of all ages, from children in plastic specs to toothless old women. Not used to seeing foreign patients they gazed at me with interest. I wondered desperately if they all had appointments but after half an hour we got in to see the doctor, second in the queue.
We didn’t keep the others waiting long. The doctor, a big walrus of a man, gazed at me lugubriously. He said he couldn’t even look down my ear as he had no instruments to do it. We would have to find a specialist. It was just as my friend said — he only referred people on and worked as if by osmosis, with no tools and no contacts. He didn’t know where to find a specialist and seemed to be marooned in his little office. Then he said the words ‘private doctor’ but didn’t know where to find them.
Back in the little car we set about finding private doctors on Google. Each one had left a recorded message. At lunch time, five long hours after we set out, we got a real voice from someone in the port of Świnoujście, a ferry-crossing away. We walked across the town for half an hour to some run-down flats and a private clinic in a dingy basement, the sort you might see in a film noir, or set up in desperation if you’d been struck off.
In semi-darkness, with a world-weary expression, he peered into my ear, inserted some cream on the end of a long prong, didn’t ask me any questions or to see my European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) and, for the equivalent of £150 in cash, wrote a prescription. I didn’t get a receipt.
As the sunny day wasted away, we found a chemist, waited in a long queue, then paid £80 for some antibiotics, organic pills to protect you from antibiotics as Poles are going very green, ear drops and ibuprofen — which nearly did the trick, except I had to take almost the whole packet very quickly. A kindly woman behind the counter wrote out a long, elaborate invoice.
By the time I arrived back at the overstocked turkey shed that is Luton airport, I was in excruciating pain. I hadn’t been prescribed an anti-inflammatory; my face had begun to swell and I felt sick and giddy. I realised I should just have bought painkillers over the counter and ignored everything else.
The following day I saw my own doctor who was pleasingly fascinated when he looked down my ear, describing it as ‘significantly infected, with a lot of debris’. He offered me some super speedy pills which I couldn’t take as they involved penicillin. He doubled the dose of old-fashioned erythromycin and gave me an anti-inflammatory. Within a few hours the pain had almost gone. I discovered I had lost my bill from the Polish chemist so gave up on getting any recompense on my EU card. I was just glad to be home and well looked after again.
My friend in Poland was annoyed that I had criticised Polish medicine but it seemed mysteriously unavailable to me. I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable that nearly a million Poles now living in the UK can freely using our GPs who have all the necessary instruments to treat them. Since then the whole issue of ‘health tourism’ has raised its diseased head again, with the government declaring that in future patients might need to show passports and other ID before treatment. We can all rest easy in our sick beds because we know that such a thing is unlikely to happen.
As many British people suspect, we pay out for health care in Europe, but get little back. According to the Department of Health, UK patients just have to present their EHIC upfront and the NHS will pick up the bill. Last year the UK paid £131 million to the EU for medical care for Britons in Europe.
The cost of treating European visitors in Britain is uncertain. Department of Health data, for 2014, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that it was £30 million — but officials admitted that figure was probably less than 20 per cent of the total. The Nuffield Trust this year put the figure at £160 million. The real cost is likely to be higher: while there are a million Brits living in Europe, there are at least three million EU nationals in the UK able to claim the same treatment as UK nationals.
According to my Polish friend, it is the ambition of every young Polish woman to have her baby in London. Many of them succeed in this but there is no way of finding out the number. The NHS doesn’t even bother to keep any reliable record of visitors from the EU. Managers like to keep their books vague, making it impossible to know how many people have been treated. Added to that, doctors generally refuse to act as ‘border control’ by checking on patient identity.
After this experience of getting nothing from my EU health card I felt cheated as a UK citizen. There is surely a case for saying this unfairness against British taxpayers is unacceptable. It’s as if we’ve all paid into an insurance scheme, the government being the directors. They’ve decided to give a lot of people free access to the scheme in the hope that they’ll get something extra for themselves out of it. And now they cling on to it in the hope that Poles and other Europeans will go easy on a Brexit deal.
Coming out of Europe won’t make any difference to what happens if we fall ill abroad — the safest thing is not to do it. It also probably won’t solve the great unanswered questions we now face: how are we going to keep on funding our health care, what are we going to do about the rest of the planet coming here to share it, and why, unlike the rest of the world, can’t we ask anyone to pay up?