Navigating The NHS

Back in 2010, while celebrating our first Thanksgiving together, we had a small medical emergency. To be honest, it didn’t seem so small at the time, especially to the one of us who was in excruciating pain, but neither was it a life or death situation.

After enjoying a marvelous dinner, the pain, which had started that morning, intensified exponentially. A couple of hours later it was evident that this was not something that could be treated with a couple of Advil, but needed a doctor’s opinion. Our dentist was, as expected, closed on Thanksgiving afternoon. Our doctor, ditto. We called our health insurer to ask for some advice, but after a long time on hold were simply told that they didn’t know about an open clinic.

We were left with only one option – go to the emergency room. We opted for the nearest hospital and after a relatively long wait, were seen and given a prescription.

The morale is that even when you know your way around a city, unexpected occurrences can still throw you for a loop. We were both pretty knowledgeable about the health system in the US and what was covered by our health insurance, but still stumbled when we needed.

When we moved to the UK, understanding the health system was a priority. The last thing we wanted was to need to see a doctor and not know how to go about finding one. The first step, we found out, is getting a National Health Service (NHS) number. We discovered that this doesn’t come with a visa or a National Insurance Number. And while emergencies are catered for, you cannot just turn up at a doctor’s clinic without this number.

To be honest, getting the number and registering with a surgery was simple enough. All we needed was proof of residence and fill in a few forms. One of us was required to do a medical test, but the other skipped this. A few weeks later, the NHS card arrived in the mail.

The next step was getting an appointment with a doctor, which was confusing at best. One of us – you can guess who – was called in for cervical screening, so we called to make an appointment with what we assumed to be an OBGYN. But no, we found out that this is carried out by a nurse. We have a lot of respect for nurses. They are professionals and know their job, but shouldn’t a gynecological test be carried out by a doctor? We also called to make an appointment for an annual health assessment to make sure everything was ok, but were told the surgery simply didn’t carry these out. Isn’t prevention and early treatment of any problems the most cost effective and healthy alternative, we asked.

To be honest, aside from these small issues, we hear that the NHS isn’t bad. We just need to get used to it and learn how to navigate it well.

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