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Going private

July 25, 2011 – 9:00 am

It’s something which everyone has probably considered at some time during their time in Andalucia: taking out private health insurance. Nice comfortable hospital rooms with ensuite bathrooms – privacy and convenience; the latest high-tech medical equipment; and the finest staff. Whether it’s for yourself or your family, the idea of getting seen by the right specialist fast is a very appealing and reassuring one. Indeed, many expat jobs come with a policy as part of the benefits, although patients often have to contribute part of the costs themselves.

Today, more than 14% of Andalucia’s population have a private medical policy – or one in seven – with one in four inpatients of the total 600,000 being admitted during 2010 using a private hospital in the region. According to figures from last year, there are 6,231 private beds in the 64 hospitals available (or 28% of the region’s total). Every year Andalucia’s private doctors see over a million emergency cases (or 20% of the total) and offer one and a half million consultations making nearly 250,000 surgical interventions (over 30%). Out of this booming business, 20% involves patients who are part of the SAS – Servicio Andaluz de Salud.

The private health insurance market has increased enormously over the past few years, being worth 772 million euros today – 1.2 million Andalucians have a policy. Andalucia is the third-highest region in terms of private hospital beds, after Catalonia and Madrid. In terms of jobs, the private healthcare industry in Spain employs over 250,000 staff, or 22% of the country’s medical professionals.

For my own part, I have great faith in the SAS, and haven’t chosen to take out a private health policy, either for myself or my children (some parents insure their offspring, but not themselves). While I’m sure a northern-European-style midwife-led birthing centre would have offered a more relaxed and pleasant experience, my children both arrived healthy.

Furthermore, a doctor in our local hospital spotted a rare blood disorder which my son was suffering from. Without his sharp-eyed diagnosis, an injury which had resulted in bleeding could have been fatal. I wrote a thank you letter (the opposite of a reclamacion, I guess) to the physician concerned, as I was so grateful to him for catching the condition, which was treated and then after some months, thankfully, disappeared.

On the other hand, I had a bad experience while my son was in hospital being treated for this disorder (aged 15 months), when one of the auxiliary staff was abusive and racist towards me (“Go back to your own country!” etc). My verbal complaint to her supervisor was not treated seriously, so I made an official reclamacion in triplicate, as you do, and after months of chasing a response, I finally received a grudging almost-apology which swore that this particular member of staff didn’t normally behave like that – in other words, virtually laying the blame on me.

Anyway, on balance, with a healthy child who was treated rapidly and efficiently (although communication by consultants with parents wasn’t great – but then, when is it?), I don’t think I have any cause for complaint. Friends who have used private hospitals for childbirth haven’t had a particularly better experience; more intimacy, certainly, with a room to yourself rather than having to share, and newer facilities such as bathrooms (the ones at the Virgen del Rocio Women’s Hospital leave a bit to be desired, if I’m honest, while in the Children’s Hospital parents have to use a separate loo in the corridor, which frequently has a queue, as the ones in the younger patients’ rooms are only for them).

One unexpectedly hilarious, if slightly disturbing, experience I had was with a locum in my village’s health centre. This doctor was much more interested in practising his (appalling) English on me, and explaining how he met his American ex-girlfriend on a couch-surfing website, than asking me why I was there. The more emotional he got, telling me about how she dumped him (I could understand her reasons), the more his English deteriorated, and the less I could follow the convoluted story. In the end, I had to practically shout at him to give me my prescription (I had to specify exactly which medication I needed, and even then he put it under someone else’s name). A surreal appointment; I pity anyone who has him as their regular GP, as the guy was seriously unhinged.

I’d love to hear your experiences of healthcare in Andalucia, whether using a private hospital, or on the national system, like me. What do you think of it? Did you find the staff efficient and knowledgeable? Did they give you confidence? Or do you think the medical profession has some of the typical Andalucian air of informality and chaos to it? Please let me know.

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