The Doctor Will See You (Literally Right) Now

In India, I’ve gotten used to certain things happening slowly. “Quick trips” to the grocery store sometimes eat up a morning; I never really know if it will take me 20 minutes or two hours to get home from work in the infamous Bangalore traffic; if I need to go to the Airtel shop to renew my phone plan, I usually clear my entire evening.

Given this pattern, I’ve started to approach potentially time-consuming tasks with caution and even plan seemingly brief errands well in advance. So, when I fell ill after a few too many strange restaurant curries on a weekend trip to Hampi, I put off seeing a doctor as long as possible. I exhausted the personal pharmacy of Tums and Cipro I’d brought from the U.S. and stalled for almost a week, hoping this particularly bad bout of food poisoning would resolve. My roommate saw how sick I was and offered twice to take me to the hospital but, exhausted and not really sure what that would entail, I refused both times.

On Day 6, I finally gave in and reluctantly accompanied my roommate to a nearby hospital. This wasn’t my first time at a medical facility here—I’ve visited both large government and smaller private hospitals for my position at BEMPU—but this was my first trip to an Indian hospital as a patient, and I realized that my visits for work had given me little idea of what to expect.

In the U.S., I know that when I’m sick I basically have three options: Wait a for an appointment with my primary care physician, try my luck at the ER and hope I don’t have to spend the day in the waiting room, or see if I can get in at an urgent care facility. I know all of these avenues involve waiting, whether it be for a few hours or a couple days, and with my insurance I’ll need to spend anywhere from $30-$75 (around 2000-5000 rupees) just for the appointment, not including the cost of medication should I receive a prescription. Because of the time and money involved, I often hold out as long as I can before seeing a doctor at home. I knew that medical care was much cheaper in India, but I anticipated that to see a doctor I’d have a long wait that I wasn’t feeling up for.

We arrived at the hospital (a facility sized more like a large clinic or doctor’s office in the U.S.). The registrar at the front desk took my information—including details of the reason for my visit, so the rest of the waiting room got to hear all about my stomach bug—and directed me to the “casualty” area (not the most inviting name, certainly) to wait for the doctor. I was surprised to find out that I was the next patient and not three minutes later, was speaking to a doctor and getting an exam. In even less time I was walking out with a hand-written prescription on the physician’s stationery.

As I walked up to the registrar to pay, my roommate laughed as I took out my AIF-issued international insurance card—the bill was 200 rupees, or $3. I figured I could swing the cost of the visit, but kept it out in case the four medications I’d been prescribed might cost a little more. This was hardly the case—I walked out of the hospital, 15 minutes after arriving, with a diagnosis and a week’s worth of gastroenteritis medication from the on-site pharmacy for a grand total of 320 rupees ($5).

It’s been another week—I’m finally feeling better, and have had the chance to think a little bit about this experience (when I wrote last month’s blog about Indian and U.S. healthcare systems, I didn’t think I’d be reflecting on a personal story!). This experience allowed me to really compare the patient experiences in India and the U.S. and see firsthand the differences between our healthcare delivery systems, something that interests me both personally and professionally. I, of course, realized that there was no need to delay this hospital trip the same way I might have at home—I probably could have been feeling better after two days instead of a week, at the low price of $5—but it was amazing to realize that I received care at a fraction of the cost, and much more efficiently, than I would have at home. Particularly in this time of ongoing debate in the U.S. over who should pay for health care, what insurers should cover, and whether coverage should be mandatory—and knowing that the U.S. spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country, yet has poor health outcomes relative to other developed nations—it was somewhat of a relief to show up to a hospital and, with pocket change, see a doctor and get the medicine I needed.

Abby graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May 2016 with a double major in Biology and Gender and Women’s Studies and a Certificate in Global Health. As a student, she worked as a research assistant on projects examining gendered causes of health disparities, volunteered as a health coach at a community health center, and worked with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to develop a policy to address physician shortages in rural areas of the state. She has spent the last year as a Maternal Child Health Coordinator with the National Health Corps Pittsburgh, an AmeriCorps program, working with high-risk women and families to provide health education and case management services. In summer 2016, she completed a research internship with the Public Health Foundation of India in Gurgaon, where she worked on a project studying treatment for anemia in pregnancy. She is excited to be returning to India to work on a public health project with Bempu!

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