Posted by: roamingolivia | July 26, 2011

An NHS visit, five years after moving to the UK

When I first moved to the UK, I had a very American approach to health care. Namely, I wanted to leave every visit with drugs, or potential access to drugs. I very vividly remember the first visits I had with my “GP” (General Practitioner) doctor in the UK. The interviews went something like this:

Me: I am not feeling well. I have a sinus infection.
Doctor: You look ill. You should probably sleep and drink juice. If it’s not better soon, you should make another appointment.

As an American, this was insane. In the US, I probably took antibiotics a few times a year for various infections. I think part of why I was sick so much was that I was still getting over the various parasites I picked up in Central Asia and Africa, which was probably hard for my immune system.

So I was pretty shocked by this seemingly careless attitude towards my immediate health needs. It seemed ludicrous that their actual advice was to wait, sleep and eat. But I usually was better within a few days. And it made me feel better to talk to a doctor.

I like to loosely term this approach to healthcare as the “personal counselling” type of healthcare – the doctors are basically there to make sure there’s nothing seriously wrong with you, and to make you feel better by talking to someone about it. It is also a useful counterbalance to Googling your own symptoms on the internet, at which point you discover you have an incredibly rare form of cancer. The phone number you can call and just talk to a nurse, who inevitably tells you “if it gets worse, go see a doctor” (but in a more knowledgeable way) is another form of this type of healthcare.

(Note: this blog post does not address actually serious health issues and the NHS’s treatment of them.)

I’ve been sick less since those early days. I am no longer a student and thus not exposed to the onslaught of student germs and late-night bar-wandering. Plus, in the five years I’ve been living in the UK, I have become more of a grown-up. I eat real food and exercise kind of regularly, and it’s all quite boring stuff but it probably helped to prevent me from getting colds, sinus infections, etc. as much as I did. It has probably helped that I don’t take antibiotics, but that’s just a theory.

I have been gradually, or not-so-gradually, developing some kind of head infection in the past few weeks, through busy-ness and exhaustion, and I decided to go to the NHS this weekend for a discussion with my doctor about my health.

Or so I thought. I went to a walk-in centre, where they process dozens of cases an hour. The doctor looked even more exhausted, and possibly more ill, than I was. He asked me what I thought was wrong with myself. I told him. He didn’t examine me in any way, or take my temperature or look in my nose or ears. He said, “And what do your doctors usually do?” I looked confused. He asked, “Antibiotics?” I said, “Yeah, sometimes.” He asked if it worked. I said yes. Then he printed me a prescription for antibiotics.

I left the office in a state of confusion about what to do next. I had wanted to go and for him to listen to me and tell me what to do, knowing that it would probably be sleep more and eat better. He had probably assumed that I was attempting to get antibiotics, particularly because I’m American. I had no idea if I was actually supposed to take the antibiotics. It was confusing, and weird, and made me realise that I am very used to this health-counseling system.



  1. Not all US doctors are quick with the drugs— I went to my doctor the other day because of my eczema — a previous doctor had given me a steriod type cream that had wiped it out — thinking this doctor would do the same, instead he counseled me about it, then said drink lots of water (eczema is dry skin) and take cool showers (hot water dries out skin). No prescription! I was upset at first then realized that his treatment was in the long runner better. Although I still have the eczema and have bought OTC cream which makes it better. But anyway I have learned to drink lots of water — which makes me feel better, but requires more bathroom visits. haven’t taken to cool showers maybe thats why I still have the eczema!

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