There’s an interesting piece today by Peter Popham, the Independent’s Rome correspondent, about his experiences with the Italian health system. Under an unnecessarily gloomy headline (Thinking of travelling to Italy for treatment? I would think again), the article kicks off by praising the country’s emergency services for being fast, efficient, non-discriminatory and, above all, free. This echoes my experience. I’ve taken innumerable visiting friends with the most unlikely ailments and found humour, diligence, precision and drugs. On one memorable occasion, a stoutly devout New Yorker (by adoption) who’d tried to jump the queue by claiming to have a dodgy heart (rather than the less urgent sciatica) thanked the doctor who’d just pumped painkiller into her bottom with a macaronic Dio benedire tua famiglia (God to bless your family). Che Dio benedica la sua schiena invece (I’d rather God blessed your back), he replied.
He’s less impressed by the care offered to less urgent cases. I think he’s a little unfair here. After all, the Italian health system has just been judged, by WHO, the second best in the world (after France); the UK came 27th. Still, he could have a point. You may remember the problems I had with insurance after breaking my shoulder in Britain last year. Now where was I? Oh yes, I’d just arrived at the casualty department of an English hospital with an oddly dead arm. I was diagnosed within half an hour as the bearer of a humerus with a compound fracture and told to come back on Monday. Today was Friday. I have to fly back to Italy on Monday, I said. Oh well, they said, and gave me a scrap of cotton to use as a sling. You’d better go to hospital in Italy then. I was prescribed painkillers for the weekend. I queued at the hospital pharmacy, my dead arm in its scrap of cotton, and paid up for some codeine. I took them back to where my mother was waiting, distraught, in casualty and asked for a glass of water. I’m sorry, the woman said, we don’t do water. You can get a bottle from the café.
Three days of excruciating almost sleepless pain later I was in Italy. Home. I went to my local hospital. They were shocked that so little had been done, with a sort of patriotic pride that the famous English national health had sent me away with nothing but a bottle of pills and a knotted handkerchief, but themselves did nothing; they didn’t have an orthopaedic department. I was sent ten miles away to Terracina, which did. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, it was closed for lunch. I waited, sitting in the car, accustomed by now to the throb of my right arm as it wobbled in its paltry sling, wondering what would happen next. More x-rays, for which I had to beg (they should have been done at Fondi), and a prescription for an authentic two part, padded sling. Plus odd little injections into the stomach that Giuseppe had to do for me because I couldn’t reach down to pucker the skin and jab at the same time.
In many ways, Popham’s right. There was bureaucracy to deal with and the cost of ‘tickets’, as they’re known here, with that fondness Italians have for concealing unpleasantries beneath the language of others. So why don’t I agree with the article? Because I didn’t feel dismissed, as I did in Wolverhampton. I didn’t feel as though I had to pay for the water I needed to take my pills. It isn’t the money as such, but the mean spiritedness of it that shocked me. There’s something perverse about prescribing pills and denying the water that’s needed to take them. Unless you buy a bottle of pure spring Malvern water, or whatever the label says it is you’re drinking to ease the pain.