Do you have private health insurance? I do, as does over 50% of the Irish population. I have no problem in admitting that it offers a welcome safety valve in an otherwise chaotic system of healthcare. I can think of lots of other useful things to do with the money I spend on health insurance but I choose to make healthcare my priority. It’s not a decision I take lightly. I firmly believe that the way forward for our health service is a system of universal health insurance, funding a single tier health delivery model which promotes equity of health care. However as our health service is in such complete disarray, I feel I’ve no other option other than to continue to invest in health insurance. I’ve certainly had reason to be thankful for it over the years though it has proved at times, to be a bit of a double edged sword.
In late 2004, I was told that I needed some complex surgery carried out to arrest a chronic frontal sinus infection. I was under the care of a consultant surgeon who operated a private practice as well as a public service contract. With my health insurance policy, I’m fully covered for surgery in a private hospital with accommodation in a single room. However, my choice of doctors and hospitals is limited as I have a complicated medical history. On this occasion I was informed that the surgery would have to be carried out in a large public hospital where the necessary back-up facilities would be available. I was duly given a date for surgery and booked for post-op recovery in a high dependency ward. Two days before the operation, the hospital phoned to ask me to report immediately for admission. I initially protested at the stupidity of taking up a bed for two days pre-op but was told that a bed could not otherwise be guaranteed. I had no option but to agree to this crazy plan. By the time I had my overnight bag packed, the hospital phoned again to say that the bed was no longer available due to an admission from casualty. This process was repeated several times over the following two days until eventually, my surgery was cancelled due to the failure to secure a bed. The surgeon was furious as an operating theatre and a surgical team had been booked solely for my lengthy operation and it all went to waste that day. Frustrated by the restrictions imposed, the surgeon suggested that a stop-gap procedure be carried out in a small private hospital. I was duly admitted the following week and underwent some relatively minor surgery. However, this action also backfired as the surgery was unsuccessful and within months I had to return to discuss the bigger operation. The surgeon again insisted that the surgery should be carried out in the large teaching hospital and in order to secure a bed, he put special arrangements in place to allow me to be transferred to the nearby private co-located hospital, to recuperate. This was only possible because I had health insurance. It should not have been necessary.
I duly checked into the co-located hospital early on the morning of my operation and within hours, was whisked away to the operating theatre in the main hospital where I remained for the rest of the day. When I next came to, I was back in the private hospital in a shared room with three other women. I now had a sophisticated stent in my skull to facilitate drainage and a surgical wound over my right eye. I received good post-operative care and was discharged home feeling extremely lucky that all had gone so smoothly. About two weeks later, my post-operative pain began to worsen and I developed severe swelling around both eyes. I was asked to report to the busy A&E department in the main hospital where I was assessed and admitted. My health insurance again secured a bed for me in the private hospital and I happily settled into a 5-bedded room, secure in the knowledge that I was lucky to have a bed at all. Three days later, it was discovered that my surgical wound was infected with MRSA and thus began a lonely journey which continues to this day. The following week while I was longingly gazing out of the window of my isolation room, I spotted a woman I recognised in the car park. I’d shared a room with her in the private hospital a month previously, immediately following my operation. I waved frantically to attract her attention and she came over to chat to me through the open window. That’s when I learnt that her problem had turned out to be an MRSA infection and that’s when the penny dropped!
The airwaves are constantly buzzing these days with sad stories about the failures within the public health service but private hospitals are not the answer to the problem. They are selective and only serve to perpetuate the upstairs downstairs model of healthcare in this country. They do no offer A&E services which means that all patients requiring emergency treatment must be processed through the chaotic system in the public hospitals, regardless of their insurance status. Those with complex medical/surgical conditions generally cannot be treated in private hospitals because the medical back-up there is too limited. And anyone who takes out health insurance in the belief that they’ll be entitled to a single room, is in for a big shock if they are hospitalised. There is a huge shortage of isolation facilities across the country and single rooms quite rightly, have been prioritised for infectious patients and those who are dying. Our public health service is expected to provide all these service yet it’s on it’s knees through years of neglect and inadequate funding from the Government. Unfortunately, our Minister for Health continues to believe that the way forward is to promote the present unsatisfactory public/private mixture of healthcare by encouraging the development of co-located private hospitals. You have to question the wisdom of backing a policy that further perpetuates inequity of healthcare. We have a booming economy in Ireland but our health service is failing the most vulnerable people in our society. This is not about public versus private healthcare, it’s about saving lives.