Athens: The Greek Healthcare system

Waking up the morning after Mayday, my foot was absolute agony, so I decided to go and checkout the Greek healthcare system.  The first place I was directed to was a lovely well decorated building, the receptionist spoke perfect English and a quiet calm   surrounded the place.  Lovely, I thought – all the stories of a crisis in the Greek healthcare system must be terribly overblown, I thought….until I discovered it was a private clinic.  Getting directions for a state hospital I set off to experience the state healthcare system.

En-route, I passed a large imposing building where approximately 30 people were gathered with signs.  Going over I found one who spoke English who explained that this was the Ministry of Health, and that the people gathered outside were heathcare workers.  None of them had been paid for the overtime that they had been working for the last two months.  With prices rising, wages being cut and additional taxes being imposed, especially the forthcoming electricity tax, all of them were struggling.  They had taken on the overtime because they were struggling to make ends meet on their existing salaries but this had now not been paid.  To say that they were pissed off is an understatement.  They said that they were staying outside the building for the time being to embarrass the ministry into paying them, but that if it was not paid soon, they would go in and make it difficult for the ministry to run.  They told me that they didnt see why the government should get free work out of them, but at the same time, people needed healthcare and it wasn’t fair that they should suffer because the government wasn’t paying its workers.  I wished them well and continued on my way to experience the healthcare system myself.

I finally found the local state hospital, but the contrast with the private clinic couldn’t have been more stark.  A packed waiting room was complimented by a reception desk besiged by people.   Formal queuing appears not to be a feature of Athens life, as people descended on the clearly overworked receptionists, crowding round eager to reach the front.  Only the kindness of the locals, sensing my bewilderment and unfamiliarity with the necessary jostling, meant that I managed to get to actually speak to a receptionist.  Although English is widely spoken in Athens, only one of the receptionists had a level of English that I could communicate with, who explained that they didn’t do feet at that hospital, but that I would need to go to another which had an orthopedic department.  The next hospital was much calmer, and the receptionist quickly sent me up to the fifth floor, where I met a lovely English speaking doctor.   He examined my foot and told me that it was probably broken and needed x-rayed, but they did not have the facilities there and that I must travel to the main state hospital on the outskirts of Athens.

After about a fifteen minute journey, I arrived at the main hospital.   Security manned the doors and loud altercations broke out periodically between the security staff and those wishing to enter.  I was given a number and sent to a waiting room, where I got ushered through into the hospital after about an hour wait to “queue” in Athenian style at the reception desk, before being sent to the Orthopedic triage.  None of the doctors in triage spoke English, which again surprised me given the prevalence of English generally in Athens, but helpfully the doctor at the previous hospital had written notes for me to give.  They managed to tell me that I need an X-ray, that I should now go and get my notes stamped and sent back to the waiting room.  The “queue” here was more chaotic than at reception, and as I waited, I was amazed to see people handing over hundreds of euros in cash at the reception desk.  Eventually reaching the front, a teenager translated as I was told that although I was registered for the E111 scheme, as I didn’t have the card on me, I would need to pay e325 to have the X-ray done.  I hobbled off figuring that whatever was wrong with my foot could wait until I returned to the UK and our free NHS.

I spoke a little with the teenager and her brother as we left, and asked why Greeks were handing over money at the reception desk.  They told me that everyone except the very poor had to pay for hospital treatment in Greece.  They could claim back between 50-70% of the cost of treatment, but they had to pay upfront before they were seen.  I said that this was a lot of money to find if you were ill, they agreed and told me that more and more people weren’t going to hospital when they should because they couldn’t afford either the upfront costs and also the 30-50% that they had to contribute and could not recover.  Unprompted they told me how much they admired the UK NHS and that no-one had to pay there for the healthcare that they needed and that this was the way that it should be.

In Kilis, 35 miles north of Thessalonika, workers have responded to the crisis currently engulfing the Greek healthcare system by taking over the running of the hospital, in response to salary cuts and wages not being paid.  A general assembly of the workers has replaced the management which has pledged to protect the health of citizens by providing free healthcare to those who require it, while continuing to demand the wages they are owed and the continued supply of the hospital by the Greek state.

Having experienced the overworked system of Greece, with stressed workers facing paycuts and their overtime being unpaid, while patients scrabbled to find the money to pay for their healthcare treatment, made me appreciate the NHS more than ever. While in the UK we take free state provided healthcare for granted, it is worth remembering that not everyone enjoys the same and that it is internationally admired as a beacon of excellence in supporting people who need treatment, therapy and care.   If Cameron has his way, that will all be ended – the NHS in England is already in the process of being privatised and it is possible that charges may be introduced for services which we currently enjoy without cost.  The NHS is one of greatest assets that the people of the UK enjoy and something that we should cherish dearly.





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