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My Severe Face Ache and the Simplicity of Medical Care in France

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

A reenacted photo story by Maureen Cain

The pain in my neck and jaw has progressed and I need medical attention. My friend Teresa suggests we go to the French pharmacist for help. This is an odd place to start, but I'm in a lot of pain and desperate for relief, so I agree to go.

Here's a typical pharmacy in the US where we climb over Dr. Pepper, Snickers bars, Pringles, Marlboros and Bud Light to get to the overworked pharmacy tech who asks for our insurance card before even saying hello. I was about to learn how different medical care is here in France.

We walk down to the pharmacist in the village. He looks at me and talks to me. He is concerned about my condition. He asks a few questions then makes a recommendation for my neck pain. No long lines. No insurance card. No checking The System on the computer. No forms to fill out. Just genuine care and concern for my health.

He suggests a "muscle deconstrictor" and tells me to come back in a few days if things don't improve.

Things don't improve. My neck, jaw, head and teeth are on fire. I'm achy and tired and can't get my head off the pillow. I know I need to see a doctor but the idea of figuring out the medical system of a foreign country is daunting. I decide to stay in bed and die a painful pre-antibiotics medieval death.

Fortunately, Teresa isn't willing to give up on me yet. The pharmacist tells her that I need to see a doctor. There's one right around the corner so she crosses the street, goes inside and asks for an appointment. While she's telling the receptionist my symptoms, the doctor comes out of his office and says he can see me in a hour. No forms. No questions about insurance. And again, no lines and no paperwork.

Teresa interrupts my downward mental spiral with good news. "I found a doctor. He can see you right now." What are you talking about?!? Where? How? When? I haven't even had a chance to dig out my insurance card. What kind of doctor? "The hot kind," she says, "And he speaks English. Get out of bed and put your shoes on."

Dr. The Hot Kind sees me within five minutes of our arrival. In his heavy French accent he says, "I hear you have a face ache." He pokes at my neck and looks in my throat. He tells me I have the biggest tonsil infection he's ever seen and that it needs to be treated immediately. He wonders why I didn't come in sooner. He doesn't understand the hassle and expense of medical care that we're accustomed to in the US.

I'm pretty sick, but not too sick to appreciate the view of the village from the doctor's office.

He writes me a prescription for an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory steroid. This is the only piece of paper involved in the entire project. He doesn't ask for my address, my phone number, my employer, my mother's maiden name, my birthdate or any other personal data that, in the US, is gathered for finanical reasons. In the office there are no ads on the walls for expensive prescription drugs and no promotional swag from pharmaceutical companies.

This is the only piece of personal information the doctor asks for: my name.

The fee is 30 Euro ($35) and I'm to pay the doctor directly. (In Seattle, the cost to see a doctor at urgent care or in an ER without insurance can be hundreds of dollars.) There is no credit card machine. There is no billing address. There is no scanning of my insurance card. There is no receipt in triplicate. In fact, there's no receipt at all. The doctor takes my cash and puts it in a pouch on his desk.

We make another quick stop at the pharmacy to get my prescriptions filled. Total cost is 9.5 Euro ($11.14)

All better. Thank you, France, for being so civilized.

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