Getting Sick And Appreciating Finland’s Healthcare System

Unfortunately, the day I was leaving North Korea I could feel that I was coming down with something. My nose was running and I felt tired despite sleeping normally. I left Pyongyang and arrived in Beijing around 10am.

I took the budget route and took a train and a series of subway connections to get to my hotel in southwest Beijing. By the time I arrived I felt dead tired but it was my only opportunity to explore Beijing a bit. I visited Beijing in 2006 and saw the main sites then, including the Great Wall. I was eager to see how things have changed after ten years and after hosting the Olympics. I had just one day in Beijing, and by the time I got to my hotel it was more like half a day with an empty internal battery.

The following day I woke up early to catch my flight to Helsinki. I confirmed within the first couple seconds of waking up that I was definitely sick. The show must go on, however. The flight was nine hours and my head and nose were quite unhappy the whole way. As the plane landed my right ear was pretty painful. I figured my cold was interfering with my ear’s ability to equalize pressure after landing. It felt clogged. As I walked to the baggage claim I blew my nose. This made my clogged ear very unhappy and I had to stand with my hand on a wall to stand upright. Without the wall I felt like I was on a boat that swayed unpredictably, capable of falling over at any time!

I arrived in Helsinki at around 5pm on a Sunday, so not a good time to try and find a non-emergency doctor. I visited my friend despite the jet lag and illness and vowed to go to a pharmacy the following morning to get their advice about a medicine to take and to ask how to see a doctor in Finland. I had to check out of my hotel the next morning at noon and my ferry to St. Petersburg, Russia was at 6pm. There was enough time to figure everything out, but the need to check out could prove to be inconvenient.

Using Google Maps I walked to the closest pharmacy, but I couldn’t find it. The second pharmacy was visible from the street so I walked inside and ascended the escalator passed some offices to the pharmacy. The pharmacist said anything that would be helpful for me would require a prescription. I asked how to visit a doctor, and I turned out that the offices I had just passed were doctors’ offices!

I walked in, took a number, and sat down until my number was called. When my number was called I registered with the attendant. She took down the information in my passport and asked me a couple questions. I had to sign one paper, and pay a 50 Euro deposit before I could see a doctor. The whole process took about five minutes. I asked if she thought I could see a doctor soon and she offered me an appointment with a doctor at 9:45am. I looked down at my watch and it was 9:40am. Perfect!

The doctor called my name at 9:45am and examined me. I told him about my nose and he had a look at my nose, throat, and then ears. When he saw my right ear he asked if my ears were giving me any trouble. I had forgotten about the pain during the landing the previous night, but then told him about that and how my ear sounded weird whenever I blew my nose. He said I had a cold virus. Some of the mucus that I produced as a result of this cold virus drained into my ear canal and got infected resulting in a middle ear infection. He used a handheld ultrasound machine to scan my sinuses. I had never seen such a machine before, but it showed that my sinuses were thankfully clear.

He wrote a prescription for a nasal decongestant and an antibiotic to clear up the ear infection. I had to pay another 22 Euros and then I went next door to get the prescriptions filled.

The prescriptions had a barcode on them. The pharmacist only had to scan the barcode and the prescription showed up in her system with the notes (in English for my benefit) that the doctor wrote. The pharmacist ordered both medicines and, like magic, they dropped into a basket right before my eyes.

Apparently all the medicines are kept in a store room and a system is in place, like an enormous vending machine, to dispense the medicine. This is made easier by the fact that in Europe you usually buy prescription medicine in a box with pills in a pop-out sheet. So no pills needed to be counted or anything like that. It was incredibly efficient, and throughout the whole process I couldn’t help but wonder/wish why the excessively complicated US health care system can’t be as efficient and advanced as what I witnessed in Finland and in Denmark from when I lived there.

All told the doctor visit cost 72 Euros and the medicine cost about 40 Euros. My travel insurance should reimburse most if not all of the cost. If I were Finnish the cost would be substantially lower, if not free. Most of all, the process was painless and efficient. I’ve spent more time, despite having an appointment, waiting to see a doctor in the U.S. (at a significantly higher cost) than it took for me to register, get an appointment, be seen, and fill the prescriptions in Finland.

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