Visiting the Doctor in the Land of Universal Health Care

5 years ago

Here I am waiting at the doctor’s office in Norway. I’m one of those people who gets sick on vacation a lot. In Bermuda, I plied myself with enough alcohol to keep the germs at bay.

This time, I wasn’t so lucky. I’ll spare you the goopy details, but put it like this: I have an “upper respiratory infection.”

Anyway, I’m here in this quiet doctor’s office. There’s no music, no television in the waiting room. That’s the thing about public places in Norway, they’re all so quuuiiiieeettt. There is no elevator music in most of the malls, grocery stores and, well, elevators. That means as soon as I laugh out loud, which is the only way I know how to laugh, it’s clear, I’m not from around here.

So as I said before, I’m in the waiting room. Observing the locals. One man is wearing these thermal-like dickie outfits that every Norwegian seems to own. (I betcha they’re hella warm!) A young, sneezing girl with hair so red it must be called orange. I’d read a magazine, but I can’t. They’re all in Norwegian.

Thankfully the doctor calls my name. Upon walking into the office which was part exam room, part office, my husband asks him in Norwegian if he wouldn’t mind talking to me in English because I don’t speak Norweigian. The doctor readily obliges.

He asks me about my symptoms and after listening to me carefully, he asks to listen to my lungs. To do this, he explains I’d have to lift my shirt. I glance around. “Isn’t there a scratchy, paper top I could wear?” I wonder to myself as my American prudishness seeps through.

I sigh, quickly roll up my sweater and flash him one of my old black bras. He seems to barely notice as the frigid stethoscope does its duty.

Soon, my sweater is back down and the doc is asking me how I usually treat this. I tell him a Z pack and an inhaler. He doesn’t know what a Z-pack is and I can’t think of the medicine’s real name, so he Googles it. Azithromycin.

The doctor looks at me sternly and says he’s familiar with the medication, but that it’s not usually prescribed. However, he’s going to go ahead and give it to me since I probably have “American super germs.” He winks.

I smile.

He asks me about my inhaler, miraculously I can recall the word: albuteral. He nods. I’m guessing that means he knows what I’m talking about.

“And now, I assume you traveled with your health insurance card, right?” He arches his eyebrows.

I’m confused. Norway is a social democratic country that has amazing universal health care. I shouldn’t need my health insurance card.

The doctor winks again. And I totally get it. He’s teasing me about America’s health care system. It’s a system that many Norwegians find bafflingly bad as they have universal health care and it’s goooood. I mean really good.

Good as in it covers all citizens and residents, it’s cost-effective, there’s no co-pay for hospital stays or drugs and the co-pay for outpatient care is minimal. It’s also not tied to your employer so you can change your job or become self employed without having to think twice about your health insurance. I could go on and on, but I won’t.

Back in the exam room/office, the doctor begins writing my prescriptions for the antibiotic and inhaler. I look around. There are diagrams of the human body on the wall. A model of the spine’s lumbar area. Children’s artwork. I ask about the artwork and he tells me it’s from his son.

His wife hung it up because we are sitting in her office, she’s also a doctor. Impressive duo.

He hands me my prescriptions and as we’re about to walk out the door he says: “My wife is from the Bronx.”

What? Bronx as in the Boogiedown Bronx? (I didn’t ask that, but I wanted to. ) My mind is flooded with questions about their life and her adjustment to being an American in Norway.

But the ever-practical-Norwegian doctor has more patients to see and we’re politely encouraged to exit the office.

I’m happy. I got my prescriptions, I know I’ll be feeling better soon and can really enjoy the rest of my Norwegian vacation. But part of me starts to think about the more than 50 million uninsured Americans and how back home in the land of the free and home of the brave, they’d just have to muddle through, bootstraps and all.


*Photo by photostock/

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