Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The British do it Better

Sunday July 7, 2013

The British do it Better

I arrived at the hospital a few minutes before my scheduled appointment. My first feeling was one of disorientation. I knew I was in the right place. I had followed the instructions precisely. I faced a wall that announced in bold letters “Emergency Room” and on the other wall “Traumatology”, the department that I needed. However, those were the only clues to the fact that I was in a hospital. The first noticeable difference of this wing of the British Hospital is that it is carpeted. And not some cheap industrial carpeting. Rather something colorful and tasteful that matches well with the wood paneling, the cheerful lighting, the artwork on the walls, the comfortable chairs, and the general furniture and ambiance of the waiting room that is more like airline business lounges that I recall from a different lifetime, than a hospital.

The next source of confusion was the staff. They looked and dressed like airline stewardesses and were smiley, pleasant and helpful. There were also a lot of them.

Next was the doctor. He knew my name before entering the examination room and without looking at a form. He pulled and pushed and prodded my hand to determine the extent of my injury. He then sent me to get x-rayed down the hall.

The walk down the hall was instructive. I passed fancy rooms with elegant wood paneling on the outside. I thought perhaps they were executive offices, but discovered that they were merely patient rooms that looked more like hotel rooms.

The floors were polished wood and then I realized what was missing. The smell. In my experience, hospitals come in two distinctive smells. It is often the smell of human decay, of blood, of death, of disease being fought, held at bay, triumphant. The other smell is that of industrial cleaners attempting to mask the odor. I’m not sure which smell makes me sicker. For some reason there was no unpleasant smell. The air quality and temperature were very comfortable, despite the chill outside.

I went to pay for my x-rays. Four clerks manned the station. Two to determine the correct billing code and two to bill and charge. Needless to say, the line was very short.

The radiologist was quick and professional. After a few minutes I had my x-ray in hand and walked back to the main waiting area. I gave the receptionist the x-ray and she asked me to sit down and that my name would be called when the doctor could see me again.

I settled down in a comfortable chair ready to catch up on some overdue reading. I heard names called on the clear and crisp Public Announcement system. Nurses walked by in white outfits complete with old-fashioned nurses hats. Doctors wore traditional white lab coats. After five minutes the receptionist walks up to me and apologizes for the delay. The doctor was in the middle of a difficult case and would see me as soon as possible. My jaw must have dropped in shock. I looked around to see if I was in some episode of Candid Camera. I could not believe what had just transpired. In all my years of going to hospitals and physicians I cannot recall anyone, not anyone, apologizing for what I had become accustomed to as the normal practice of having to wait indefinitely for health professionals. And this was just after five minutes!

Just a few minutes later the doctor saw me, looked at the x-rays, confirmed that there was no bone damage and that it was merely an inflamed tendon. He gave me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory and instructions to ice my hand several times a day.

I walked out to the nearby pharmacy, still in a state of bewilderment. Didn’t these people know how to run a hospital? Didn’t they know they were generally loud, smelly, busy, unfriendly, unhelpful, frustrating, upsetting, soul-crushing places? Didn’t they know that people requiring emergency care needed to wait untended for hours, suffering by the anonymous indifference of an overworked, underpaid staff? Didn’t they know that hospitals were meant to be places that discouraged the sick and injured from entering their doors? You would have to be in really bad shape, in serious distress, to be willing to step foot in a hospital.

Well, the British Hospital apparently has a different tradition. Founded in 1857, it is a non-profit organization that was the first to offer an insurance program in the country, forty years ago. Today, it is the favorite of the diplomatic community and anyone with foreign insurance coverage. Though it was a thoroughly enjoyable and surprising visit, I hope my need to go there will remain low.

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