GREAT HEALTH CARE ON A GREEK ISLAND
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You would quite reasonably think that the poorer a country, the worse the medical provision for ordinary locals, for resident foreigners, and especially for those let’s take the risk and bugger it young tourists, invariably under the age of 30, given to scorning any overpriced holiday insurance. However things can be considerably complicated, and that land of surprises, Albania, which as everyone knows is the poorest country in Europe, did my daughter proud when she was in urgent need in Himare, in the summer of 2012. She was walking barefoot in high grass and was bitten by a scorpion, but being only a mile from her hostel, in this beautiful coastal area opposite Corfu, with its Greek-speaking minority, she hobbled back on her boyfriend’s arm and the manager at the hostel drove her to the health centre. There they quickly gave her medication and bandaged her foot and didn’t charge her a penny, or rather not even a single lek, and didn’t even ask if she had any medical insurance, which of course being young she didn’t, as come to think of it neither did I, when I was her age of 23, and when I was footloose and prone to chronic dysentery in India and Nepal and Pakistan in 1973.
As you know Greece has a few little structural problems, and isn’t yet the richest country in Europe, but the medical provision here on the Isle of Kythnos is remarkable, a cross between infinitely relaxed, instinctively munificent, and imponderably Kafkaesque. My considered opinion is that though my NHS medical treatment and that of my late wife Annie were mostly excellent in the UK, I still prefer this idiosyncratic laid-back Cycladean version. Take note that what follows just possibly applies to small islands, as I can’t imagine it working in the same way in a hectic city like Athens or Thessaloniki. Also bear in mind that I had absolutely nil idea what the Greek system was like when I moved here 2 years ago, and only bit by bit it has revealed its remarkable and ineffable mechanism.
For a start, if you want to visit the island’s smart little medical centre, you don’t have to make an appointment with a doctor or a nurse, you just turn up. And no, this isn’t one of those God awful UK NHS first-come-past-the-door innovations, or of the ring before 8am and you might get seen the same day variation, which drove everyone apart from the doctors who had dreamt the bilious scheme up, half mad. I happen to have a regular need of Vitamin B12 injections, and must have visited the Kythnos health centre about a dozen times by now. Only once was I not seen immediately, as there was one other person there, and otherwise I have stepped straight out of the taxi and straight into the doctor’s or nurse’s surgery. In the case of Sotiria the good looking English speaking nurse of early 40s, it is a case of denims lowered and a painful jab in the gluteal muscle of the backside, though now she jovially asks me whether I would wish it on the left or the right buttock. I indicate the left corresponding to my politics, and come to think of it the inglorious arse and the ugly maelstrom of party politics, whether Greek or Brit, have much in common (split down the middle, unsavoury in parts and especially in their murky depths). One time the jab was so bloody painful, I made a lot of squawking noise, and Sotiria who has 2 small kids consoled me aged 64, with a pot of home-made glyko preserve jam that she happened to have in her handbag. The last time I had got a reward for being brave was in a Cumbrian hospital outpatients in 1957 aged 6, when I had fallen on my rubberless bike handlebar, and got a wondrous and bloody cut very close to the left eye. The physician who gave me a lollipop was called Happel, though being only 6, I assumed he was really named Doctor Apple.
Whether it is a left of field jab up the arse, or a long or short consultation with a doctor, I pay only for the medication, and not for their time nor the health centre facilities. I get the medication from the pharmacy in the port, and here again the system is so relaxed, I never need a prescription. The doctor writes down what it is called, and I show it to the chemist, and that is that. I get repeat prescriptions ditto, which for me is a boon as I don’t have to taxi it up to Horio to get the bit of paper. As far as I know there are no heroin addicts on this tiny island, and I wonder if there were, whether the same repeat prescription for a methadone facility would be on casual offer. I somehow doubt it. Add to that, that the pharmacy folk are not only in constant contact with the GPs, but know every single soul on the island, and everything they do, and have ever done since the beginning of and to the end of time. If you were up to some scam, they would have it speedily broadcast on the bush telegraph, just as if your medication is of the embarrassing kind, such as for haemorrhoids or intimate fungal itch (your friend and mine, dear old Ms Candida Albigans) it is up to their sense of charity and confidentiality, whether they gossip and laugh their heads off to their pals about that bad-tempered bastard Panos and his incorrigible back passage.
But here is where it gets truly surreal. The doctor and nurses themselves keep no record whatever of your medical treatment, neither on a computer nor on old-fashioned filing cards. If your treatment is of a simple one-off kind, such as telling you to get X from the chemist for your very bad cold, that is that, there is nil written memo whatever. But suppose you have something more complicated that requires to be investigated, and need a succession of tests for your blood pressure, pulse, renal functions, cholesterol, glucose levels etc. More than likely there will be a blood test or an ECG involved, and that will yield a digitalised number or a print off, that in the former case the nurse writes down on a bit of paper. Once that procedure is finished, the doctor will jot down every separate result for cholesterol, pulse etc, on that little page of notepad, or the single bit of ECG paper. They will also add all the names of the different medications and the dosages you have been put on, as a final foolproof round up. That is your written record of your treatment for today, given to you on the spot, this computer print off or scrap of paper with a few brisk biro comments on it. The doctors themselves and the health centre keep no copy of this, and there are no such things as medical records, only bits of print off in the hands of the patient and no one else. Great eh? No scope for endless subsequent litigation of course, unless you are a real zealot and make 50 crafty photocopies of your precious bits of paper.
Finally let’s suppose after all these tests, you need to be referred to a specialist. For this purpose Kythnos comes under its sister island Syros, whose beautiful Hora, Ermopouli, is the administrative capital of the Cycladean group. There is a small NHS-style hospital in Syros and you will be referred there at nil cost, whoever you are, for possible ultrasound, X rays, and who knows what else. But again, even with the hospital, you do not need an appointment, you just turn up beaming at the wonderful simplicity of it all. Your island GP gives you a letter outlining your problem, and doubtless you lug along your 3 or 4 ECG print offs, and you turn up at the specialist’s door who has not even been pre-advised you are coming. Should there be a queue of 3 or 4 others, your GP has pre-empted any waiting by stating that your case is urgent whether in the last event it is or not (though of course he would only send you to a specialist if he thought it was potentially urgent).
When Kostas the Kythnos GP told me about the procedure for seeing the specialists, quite frankly I was amazed There are so many questions begged by such an easy come easy go system, I didn’t know where to start. But Kostas was adamant that was the case, and though he has been known to frequently pull my leg, he has never once pulled it about anything to do with medical matters.