We’re having a hot spell here in La Alpujarra for October, with temperatures reaching 30 degrees. Just when I’d got used to the idea of cardigans, boots and three-quarter length trousers, out come the sandals, strappy dresses and thirst-quenching fizzy lemon drinks again. But it seems that Brits aren’t coming to Spain just for the sun and fun these days.
A report in Monday’s Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/oct/05/british-expats-health-tourism-spain) suggests that the Spanish medical services are increasingly attracting the one million Brits with homes in Spain so that these “health scroungers” can obtain the likes of hip and cataract operations while beating the queues back in Blighty. The “scalpel tourists” are apparently visiting Espana for the duration of their operation and then skipping on to the first plane home before the stitches have even had a chance to settle.
In Alicante alone, 15-20% of people using its hospitals are Brits, while Malaga’s Costa del Sol Hospital is also experiencing a surge in “dippers” (a moniker for persons who move between the two countries) “cherry picking” its services to avoid NHS waiting lists. The ‘dipper skippers’ are, undoubtedly, a strain on resources but surely by owning property in Spain, they’ve put something into the economy over here at some stage. Thinking about it, perhaps a few thousand replacement hips aren’t such a bad payback for British funds helping fuel the Spanish tourism and construction industries over the last few decades.
Personally, I try my hardest to avoid the Spanish health services. Although Motril Hospital was efficient with scans during my second pregnancy, and the appointments occurred on time - an achievement sadly lacking in Brighton’s Royal Sussex Hospital - the staff in the local centro de salud (health centre) can be hideously rude to the unsuspecting ‘extranjero’. Then there’s the language barrier, which is possibly worse if you live in a rural area where there are fewer English-speaking ‘medicos’ (doctors) – and why should they be expected to communicate in a foreign language anyway? When I was pregnant second time round, I asked for the Down Syndrome test to be carried out. Some people don’t agree with this test but I would rather know what’s what. Anyway, I was shunted from pillar to post – from Lanjaron to Orgiva to Motril – sometimes with a translator in tow, which cost me by the hour. Eventually, after seven or eight failed attempts to obtain the correct appointment and much traipsing about, I finally received the desired blood test. I returned to the centro de salud a few days later for the result and was handed a piece of paper containing a code by a nurse who wasn’t sure what it meant. As I was flying to England the same day, upon landing I phoned an English midwife to decipher the code... did it say “all clear”? She went quiet for a minute. “It says that you’re pregnant.” Argh! I’d spent at least two whole days and 100 Euros on a pregnancy test at 16 weeks gestation. I had to laugh, otherwise I would have wept. The Down Syndrome test was finally conducted at the Royal Sussex Hospital within the outer limits of its valid timeframe. Sigh!
And that’s not all. When I wanted to ensure my second son had all his jabs, I discovered that the schedule of inoculations was different in England and Spain. My best efforts to sort this out were met with disdain from the nurse in the centro de salud. She was suitably horrified by the confusion over English codes for various jabs and told me not to visit again without a translator. As a result, Mummy was scared of Nursie and some of the jabs took place late in England. On another occasion, my oldest son’s toenail was hanging off by a thread and he kept screaming. I realised I could try to pull it off myself but he wouldn’t let me near it. The male nurse looked at me as if I was bonkers for taking the poor little lad into the centro de salud for the nail pulling exercise. I didn’t think his “bedside manner” was very appealing. Since then, I’ve steered clear of the centro de salud if it can possibly be avoided. I know of a case in the past where a little girl died because her parents had been treated rudely by medical staff in a nearby town. She needed medical attention after an incident involving hot water but, sadly, the fear of scorn overrode the fear of scalding. I wouldn’t go that far in my avoidance tactics – i.e. never take a chance with a child or in an emergency - but I can see how it could happen.
So, for “scalpel tourists” who don’t own a holiday home in a large municipality with English-speaking ‘medicos’, a longer waiting list may be the lesser evil than treatment in a foreign language from providers who don’t really want you there, and where you may not understand all the procedures. I decided to have my second baby in England and was jolly glad I’d swapped countries when he came early and was ill afterwards: that sort of scenario in broken ‘Spanglish’ would have been worrying at best and dangerous at worst. I’m sure the Spanish medical services have their advantages but there’s something to be said for the reassuring familiarity of the NHS, for all its faults.