I have what the French call la peau fragile au soleil, meaning, I sunburn easily. As a result I’m at greater risk for skin cancer and see a dermatologist regularly. So when a new odd spot appeared on my freckled arm I debated whether I should wait a couple of months until we were back in DC or take a spin through the French medical system. What the heck, I’ve got time, let’s go for a spin.
Through the AngloInfo website I located a source for finding a doctor based on specialty and location. After a couple of inquiries (the first doctor didn’t have an appointment available until July) I got an appointment for the following Tuesday in a nearby town. Except for trying to comprehend the twangy endings of the receptionist’s southern accented French, making the appointment couldn’t have been easier. All she needed was my name, phone number and brief description of why I wanted to see the doctor.
At the appointed time I arrived at the doctor’s office – a very small operation consisting of one waiting room with one receptionist and one doctor with an office and adjoining examination room across the hall. The receptionist took down my name, address, birthdate and again asked why I wanted to see the doctor. She seemed quite concerned that I didn’t want any forms to file for reimbursement, which in turn worried me a little about how much all this was going to cost. But no matter, I was paying for the visit out of pocket and hence no forms to fill out – no medical history, no privacy forms or anything else. I signed absolutely nothing.
When it was my turn to see the doctor, it was she who came to the waiting room and walked me across the hall to her office. She had me sit while she typed my name into her computer. She chatted with me a few minutes about how everyone is using laptops these days instead of desk top computers (she saw me in the waiting room using a laptop) and asked what nationality my surname was. She thought maybe it was Belgian. “No, German,” I explained.
She then takes me into the examination room, pulls a clean sheet of paper over the examination table and has me lie down. She looks at the spot on my arm and says it isn’t serious, but she’ll burn it off anyway. She takes a stick from a liquid nitrogen container and dabs at the spot several times while she asks about where I’m from and tells me a story about her first visit to Washington – how funny she thought it was that there was a separate smoking room at the airport. This was back in the days before smoking was banned in public spaces in Europe. After the odd spot is taken care of she walks me back to the receptionist’s desk, where I’m given the bill and a prescription for an anti-scaring cream.
I’m shocked when I see at the bill – 33€, about $44. As soon as I got home I looked in my insurance records and find that this same service in the US would cost me $280 before insurance, and still cost me $165 after. True, I’m comparing a small town doctor to a Georgetown doctor, but still, what are we paying for? A fancy office and more bureaucracy? Is it really possible that the French have a more efficient and therefore less expensive system than we do? Is there something to be learned here?