on French doctors

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I’ve met my fair share of French doctors. This is unfortunate not because they are particularly awful but because I’ve had to see them in the first place. For someone who only lived in France for nine months, I spent an inordinate amount of time  in bad health and navigating the healthcare system.

You start to pick up on cultural clues when you interact with the same type of person or bureaucracy over and over again in a relatively short space of time.

Here are a few experiences I found illuminating:

The first time I visited a French doctor, I made an appointment online and showed up a few hours later. The office was on the ground floor of an apartment building. A woman came to the door and told me to sit in a living room-like waiting area. When that same woman came back and led me into another room ten minutes later, I assumed she’d then leave and get the doctor. But she was the doctor. Her exam area was a converted sitting room. Between the fireplace, the crown molding, and the oil paintings in gilded frames, the exam table seemed a little out of place.

The doctor told me to take off everything below the waist, and then she stood there. I was afraid I had misunderstood her French and would scandalize her if I proceeded to strip in front of her. So I confirmed – everything? Yes, everything. She continued to stand there. I pulled first my pants and then my underwear off, not knowing exactly where to hold my gaze. Then I awkwardly scrambled onto the exam table. She did a quick exam, made a diagnosis, and sat down at her desk to do the billing while I put my clothes back on. 

As this was happening, a call came in. Someone wanted to have a discussion about lab results but the doctor said she was busy and told her to make an online appointment to come in. Then she hung up and told me apologetically that because I didn’t have any social security coverage, the charge would be 30 Euros. I shook my head in wonder, and as I handed over the cash, I couldn’t help but gush about how the French health care system is humane and wonderful and a million times better than the American one, which the GOP was attempting to dismantle that very week.

Then the phone rang again. It was the same woman as before, insisting on a phone consultation. The woman raised her voice and the doctor lost her patience. The two started shouting at each other while I sat and waited. Suddenly, the doctor hung up on the woman, turned to me, and muttered, “The United States, huh? I would LOVE to be a doctor in the United States. You see the way we get treated here?”

Later I visited a GP who got into a screaming match with a patient because she came in for an emergency appointment but didn’t have an official emergency. He told her she had to wait for a regular visit like everyone else and she refused to comply. He, too, did not have a receptionist and had to handle the dirty work himself. He, too, seemed to be operating out of a dedicated area of his own apartment. And he, too, told me to take my shirt off for the exam and then stood there looking at me expectantly. While I found it a little unnerving, it did made me wonder why it matters if a doctor walks out of the room and gives you privacy while you’re changing, if in the end they see you naked anyway. 

Then there was the psychiatrist at a reputable hospital who, after advising me to leave France (I had not asked for his advice), told me that I’d have to be crazy to want to live in a country where x, y, and z were wrong. I pointed out that things weren’t much better in the United States and he conceded, “Well, yes, of course Donald Trump is completely insane.” If he had been joking I would have found it funny, but he was 100% unaware that he was taking liberties with his profession’s terms of art. I thought about all the American psychiatrists who have steadfastly refused to diagnose Trump’s mental health from a distance, and I was suddenly thankful for this one’s lack of tact.

There are lots of other differences between French and American healthcare workers that I noticed, but my friend’s story is the one I like best:

She hadn’t had a teeth cleaning in more than two years and felt gross about it. When she went to the dentist, he looked in her mouth and told her that her teeth were fine, and he flat out refused to treat her even though she expressed a strong desire for a cleaning. I can imagine him explaining in a very dignified way that he could not possibly accept her money for a service that wasn’t necessary. On the contrary, I could not in a million years imagine an American dentist refusing my money – or thinking that two years’ worth of plaque buildup was no big deal. In fact, the last time I went to the dentist he tried to convince me that I urgently needed $600 worth of veneers. (I didn’t.)

I will let you draw your own conclusions about these interactions, if you’d like. I prefer to keep mine to myself, because if I’ve learned anything during my travels it’s that just when you think you have enough evidence to come to an understanding about a foreign culture, your assumptions are upended and you feel like a fool for judging too soon.

[The beautiful garden in the photo above is in the courtyard of the oldest hospital in Paris, founded in the 7th century, though the current building is from the late 1800s. Not your average NYC hospital.]

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