When most people travel, the last thing they want to experience is getting sick on holiday. Getting sick is something, as an expat, you inevitably know will happen. However much like navigating your way through a foreign supermarket, you never what you are going to get. Getting sick at home had a different set of annoyances. It was a question of do I go or can I get by with over the counter medication? But as an expat, trips to the doctors are more frequent if only to obtain your medical certificate to prove you genuinely needed that day off. As an expat faced with a new health care system, two questions often spring to mind- is it clean? and what strange procedures are they going impose upon me?
Episode 1 (2 and 3) with foreign health care
Our first episode with foreign healthcare was one experienced by myself. I had a chest infection in Doha (the first of many it would seem). I knew the only thing to relieve it was antibiotics. So I walked myself along the dusty road to the nearest health centre in 35 degree heat and with an aching fever. Although a short walk, it was far from comfortable.
Upon arriving, I was asked to pay a small fee to see the doctor (something I hadn’t anticipated). I then waited almost an hour to see a nurse to do an initial check. At this point they drew blood but didn’t explain why. I asked the nurse, who then explained this was how they determined an infection. This left me anxious as no Western doctor I had encountered needed to identify an infection by drawing blood -through a vein in my hand I might add. I then waited another an hour to see the doctor for the consult to re-explain my symptoms, was told to wait again for the blood tests and then given 3 pages of prescriptions for my ailments. Three hours later, I returned home with a bag full of goodies courtesy of the private health insurance I received from my employer.
I went through this 2 other times with a chest infection. The final time resulted in going to a hospital clinic which didn’t seem to be cleanest and certainly did not have the friendliest of staff. By then I expected being turned into a pin cushion for assessing my infection or for administering medication. Each time I was given an medical certificate for only a day off work. I could’ve done with 3!
Episode 4 with foreign health care
This time in Singapore, I was less concerned with the cleanliness of the place, as the country itself held high standards in this area. I also wasn’t concerned with the quality of care we would receive as I had recently read that Singapore had one of the best healthcare systems in the world. What I was concerned for was the cost. My employment didn’t provide health insurance and I had heard the stories of how costly health care could be if you were faced with hospital bills. As our finances was just sufficient to begin with, health insurance really was a luxury we were waiting to be in a better financial position to afford. After all, we could absorb a $30 fee for a GP visit and how often did we ever get admitted to the hospital.
Well our worst nightmare came true when we returned back from Bali. My husband had been ill prior to going on our trip with what he self-diagnosed as food poisoning. Ten days later he experienced the same symptoms and drew the same conclusions. After mentioning it to his mother, I was told to take him to the doctors the next day as it could be a bacterial infection. Like most men out there, my husband refuses to go to the doctors and sees himself to be more than capable of diagnosing himself via Web MD! But thankfully he agreed to go to the doctors the next day.
A costly affair
At the doctors, we were told he had to be admitted to a hospital as he was severely dehydrated. So we hopped in a taxi (even though the walk was short) and went to the hospital. There,we were seen in less than 30 mins and the doctor explained what would happen. He also mentioned there was a possibility of an overnight stay. This was where it was going to get scary. Neither one of us wanted this as we knew the costs would be excruciating. However, neither one of was wanted to protest. After all this was his health!
He was soon hooked up to an IV drip (he hates needles) and I stood by trying to find out what was going on and what to expect. All the doctors, nurses and taxi drivers were so nice, comforting and patient with us.
About an hour later the blood results came in and the doctor came to deliver the news. He wanted to keep my husband in overnight. We knew this had to be done but we just wanted to go home.
As I signed the necessary papers to admit my husband, I got a few glimpses of what the charges were going to be. One night, I kept telling myself. It’ll just be one night. When I made the first payment, I was shocked at the damage. The estimated cost was more than my monthly salary and some! Thankfully, the accountants allowed to us to just pay the deposit initially. And so I used funds from our UK account to cover the damage.
My face must have been grave as my husband asked what the damage was but I refused to tell him then. I just wanted him to get better and it took everything to get him to see a doctor in the first place.
The final bill
After waiting until the final doctors had come to see him, I went home, packed up our belongings to prepare for a night in the hospital and quickly transferred more funds over. I then returned back to the hospital to stay the night with my husband. He was in the best of care and the nurses were more than vigilant with their care. The specialist agreed he was on the mends and released him the next day. There was talk of keeping him another night just for good measure but after we explained our insurance situation he quickly processed the discharge papers. I went to pay the final bill which was just under one month’s salary and we finally went home!
Of all the places in the world to have to go through something like that, I am glad we were here in Singapore. From getting to the hospital to going through all the procedures, every person we met was kind, humorous and caring. No taxi driver turned us away because the fare was too short (which could’ve happened in the UK). All the drivers assured us everything was going to be ok and not to worry (again they probably read the worry written all over my face!). And the doctors were jovial, thorough and patient. You could argue that medical staff would be like that in private health care. However, I was more than grateful to have encountered such kind people in a situation like that. The last thing you want in a situation like that is to fight- to get a doctors attention, to get proper provision and care etc.
Having said that, worrying about the cost of healthcare made me appreciate the healthcare systems back home. To have access to subsidized or free healthcare is really valuable. It really made me think about those who forgo healthcare due to cost. Healthcare should not be something people should have to compromise on.
We have since obtained health insurance. And since sharing our story with others we know this is quite a common experience. A lot of expats have to pay out of pocket first. Often the costs exceeds what exists in their bank account. Definitely not a nice feeling. It’s an experience that has given us food for thought on the quest to find home.