Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) has been taking a hammering of late over health standards. Perhaps it takes a visitor to our shores, such as American Television correspondent Greg Dobbs (pictured below), to see the hospital in a different light.
A former ABC International Correspondent, Dobbs fell ill here on arrival and discovered a silver lining in our free Health Service. Mr Dobbs had travelled from Denver, Colorado, to Northern Ireland to make a half hour documentary for his current network, HD.Net, about Northern Ireland’s transition from ‘war to peace’.
No sooner had he touched down at Belfast International Airport than he was being whisked off to the RVH suffering from a very serious bleed.
The following is Greg’s personal account of his experience of Northern Ireland’s Health Service:
When I’m sick, I want the world’s best health care as much as anybody. But I wasn’t real optimistic a couple of weeks ago when, on my way to shoot a television documentary, I suffered a significant amount of internal bleeding aboard an overnight flight from Newark. From massive blood loss, collapsing twice after we landed, evidently I almost died.
That’s why I’m ecstatic to report that my fears of inferior care were ill-founded. In fact, I’m ecstatic to be around to report anything at all. But I am, and here’s one of the reasons why: an expensive and innovative (Israeli designed) tool called the PillCam. 36 hours after launching on a fantastic journey through the length and depths of my digestive system, collecting almost 60,000 diagnostic images inside me to pinpoint the source of my bleeding, the PillCam successfully completed its mission.
The thing is, this 21st Century treatment wasn’t at the internationally-famous Mayo Clinic, or the vaunted Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, or the top-rated New York Presbyterian. No, it was at the big, battle-tested, National Health Service trauma center in Belfast, Northern Ireland called Royal Victoria Hospital, known to locals, as well as reporters like me who covered the warfare here in the 70s and 80s for ABC News, as the Royal Vic.
Frankly, that’s why I had felt so low about what I faced from the moment I was lifted into an ambulance. The Royal Vic was for victims of external bombings, not internal bleeding. What’s worse, I was being thrust into the hands of the cash-strapped budget-dependent National Health Service, and I would be hospitalized in the long-wartorn city of Belfast, not the modern metropolis of London. I was even more scared than I might have been.
It hasn’t been a perfect experience. I felt lost in the chaos of the emergency room. I’ve had bloodlines spring leaks where they’re inserted in my arms. I’ve heard fellow patients screaming all night. And while recovering, I’ve been presented with a couple of plates of food I wouldn’t pay for at a restaurant. But you know what? It’s a hospital! As a veteran of a few other life-threatening traumas, I’ve suffered the same at institutions in the U.S.
More important, just as I have in American hospitals, I’ve had the high-tech procedures I needed here when I needed them. Two angiograms, two endoscopies, CT scans, x-rays, a colonoscopy, and that tiny alien capsule that I swallowed, the PillCam. Some argue that in a universal
healthcare system like this one (which critics would call a euphemism for “socialized medicine”), you’ll only get urgent care if you have urgent needs. Well, about ten years ago when my back collapsed and I was reduced to crawling around my house with screaming pain until I could have some vertebrae fused, I’d say the need was pretty urgent. But it took a week-and-a-half to get me into surgery. That was in suburban Denver.
The bottom line is, maybe it’s socialized medicine but the doctors and nurses and procedures and protocols here are first rate; they saved my life. By the way, I have pre-existing conditions, which disqualify me for most insurance at home. Here? Except for personal medical history to help treat me, no one even asked. In fact, the bureaucracy is so minimal and the priorities so different, no one has even asked to see an ID card to prove who I am, let alone a credit card to prove my ability to pay!
And the cost? The “emergency” parts— the ambulance, the ER, the transfusions— came with no charge. The rest? Oh, since I only came to Belfast to shoot a television news segment and don’t pay taxes and thus am not insured, I’ll pay alright, but since the model for hospital revenue isn’t based on market-driven, sometimes price-gouging profit centers, I won’t pay through the nose. If you think it’s no different in the U.S., you’re not paying attention. Market-driven healthcare systems certainly provide the best… but a big downside is cost.
And here’s the biggest difference between the two healthcare systems: this one, in the U.K., is open for everybody. Residents don’t have to assess and agonize over the cost because they don’t have insurance. If they need medical care at any level, they just go. As I did. And get fixed. As I am.
And guess what: anyone here who doesn’t like their universal healthcare system and wants something more can have it, through private insurance, if they’re willing and able to pay for it. Just like us. Socialized medicine? It’s not perfect, but then, neither is ours. This system saved my life. That’s good enough for me.
Dobbs, a London based correspondent in the 70s and 80s, reported regularly from Belfast and old habits die hard:
Strangely, I was sitting opposite Mr Dobbs in A&E on 30 March, having been sent up to the RVH by my doctor with an abnormal liver function test result. I didn’t know who he was (recognised him form the photo), but I sensed he was a worried man so it’s good to know he came through his ordeal well mended. I would echo his thoughts and observations. The nurses, doctors, cleaners and caterers couldn’t have been kinder. There was a general air of efficiency and a caring, empathetic attitude was shown by all. A&E is fairly chaotic and it was 12 hours before I ended up in a bed. I spent 3 days in the A&E “clearing” ward. This was something of an eye-opener. I witnessed nurses being hit, spat at and abused by patients, some of whom were obviously in a confused and frightened state, but the compassion and forbearance of the staff was exemplary with rarely a raised voice and always an attitude that revealed sympathy rather than censure. I agree with Mr Dobbs about the food – more school canteen than Deane’s – but then again, it’s wholesome enough and reasonably varied. All in all, we’re fortunate to have the service and any inadequacies are mitigated by the sheer, undiluted professionalism of the staff from cleaner to consultant.
Rather symbolic that behind Greg over his right shoulder there is a sign that says “MediCare”.
I had the great honour and privilege to work with Greg and his cameraman, Hank, on their HDNet program and was so impressed and proud of the RVH’s response and treatment. It was top class. I visited him a number of times during his hospital stay and everyone was so friendly and helpful.
Having lived in the U.S. for 6 years, I can tell you that you have nothing but stress when it comes to getting medical treatment. It is so true that before anyone sees you in a doctor’s office or in a hospital, you have to show proof that you can pay for any treatment. Even with insurance there, you can still be charged a fair bit as not everything will be covered. My cousin in New Jersey had to go into hospital there to receive chemo treatment a few years ago. He was fully insured, but still had to fork out over $3,000 for his treatment once it was finished. Thankfully, he is cancer free still, but it came at a sizeable cost.
Live and work in Belfast all of my life and I have never heard anyone refer to “The Royal” as the Royal Vic !