What is the difference between US and UK medical care?

By Adele Sharman

16 December 2022

A few days ago I came down with a cough and backache, so I decided to withdraw from physical activities like a morning walk or swimming for a while. I was feeling so unwell that I couldn’t even look at the sunshine despite my endless love for the sun. It didn’t seem too serious and I expected to get better soon, but the symptoms remained the same throughout the week and there was no sign of improvement.

A visit to the pharmacy

When my condition got worse I had nothing to do but resort to some medical treatments. If I were in the UK, the first port of call would be the pharmacy to see if there was anything I could buy over the counter. Throat lozenges, for example, usually cost from £2.00 up to £4.00 there, and cough medicine is about £5.00. Driving in Florida, I stopped by CVS to ask for light medications. Having entered the drugstore, I stared blankly at the pharmacist who swamped me with loads of drug names. The drugs go under different names here as in the UK, so I struggled to make out what he was saying. Anyway, I left the store with nothing as I was already taking paracetamol and some other remedies I had already been taking with honey and hot water drinks. 

Healthcare in the UK

A major difference between the UK and the USA is the appointment system for doctors. All it takes to schedule a GP appointment in the UK is a phone call. I have a great GP, so they always manage to fit me in, though that’s not always the case for most people out there. Everyone is registered with one GP and doesn’t pay for the consultation since the  NHS is funded mainly from general taxation supplemented by National Insurance contributions (NICs). In other words, we do pay by paying taxes, but not on the point of contact. Even if you don’t pay NICs you are still entitled to be provided with free medical treatment.

Healthcare in the US

It works differently in the US. Firstly, I need to reach out to my travel insurance because I travel for up to 3 months at a time and most travel insurance agencies only cover you for 30 days. It means you can travel multiple times in a year, but only have cover for  30 days. Many people are unaware of this, so when they end up with some health complications they can’t get any financial compensation. Check out how many days your insurance is valid for and don’t forget to obtain your travel insurance at the place of your residence (for me it’s the UK). Also, keep track of the excess on your travel medical insurance. A claim may not provide much compensation by the time you file it.

I contacted my travel insurance. My biggest concern was medical, especially in the USA given the sky-high prices for medical services. According to my insurance company, I can go to any emergency room or medical center and get my expenses reimbursed. The insurance company will deal with the hospital on your behalf if you are admitted. This is when costs can skyrocket.

 An unpleasant surprise

The nearest centre was over 30 minutes away. Upon registration at the reception, I was shown the price list which made me laugh hysterically. Prices started from $149 going up to $249 and if you need a prescription you have to pay extra money for that. Each pharmacy has its prices for different medications. I was waiting with the hope that the test would not be needed or that at least it would keep the cost down. For your information, Amoxicillin can range from $9.70 to $25.00 depending on which pharmacy you use. Walmart is the cheapest one. In the UK, we don’t give that much thought. All the prescriptions have a set price and even if you’re broke or have a low income, you still can apply for certain exemptions.

After two and a half hours of waiting, I was finally checked. Don’t get me wrong, the service was excellent and friendly, but we complete it much faster in the UK. I suppose I take our 10-minute checkouts for granted, so it’s hard for me to grasp what took them so long. My diagnosis was an acute lower respiratory infection, laryngitis, and bronchitis. The doctor prescribed me some antibiotics because I had pneumonia before and other throat lozenges that I had never heard of. The prescription is sent electronically to your chosen pharmacy and there’s no telling of the costs. I couldn’t wait to see the receipt. Guess what the price was? Some medications which could have cost me £9.35 in the UK came at $31.00 and the other one cost me a further $25.00.

There is no dire need for private medical insurance in the UK unless you need surgery or want to see a specialist. Most of the time you pay when you need special service. The lowest price for a consultation is £150 and £250 is the highest one. Nevertheless, it is very easy to get in touch with a local GP in the UK. 

What matters most

When it comes to health, skimping is not an option. Of course, it’s not only about money but about how healthcare is provided in different countries. It’s worth forking out for insurance, even though it might cost an arm and a leg. At least you are guaranteed financial aid in case of emergency. People who live in the USA don’t take on travel insurance because they are not traveling, so they either have to pay for private medical through their wages or do not have any coverage. I feel fortunate to have an NHS system provided by the UK. For all its faults we don’t need to worry about paying to see a GP. A friendly reminder to people who often travel: check your policies and have a spare card that you could put any medical expenses on. Stay well and remember: health is the greatest wealth!

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