I was unsure what to expect as I attempted to visit a doctor for the first time since arriving in London. I had heard horror stories about getting an appointment and the virtues of “free” healthcare (not really free when the tax rate is around 55%). I had a recurring health issue, of which I will spare you the details. I took a deep breath and made a call to my local NHS office.

Originally, I thought that I could avoid the NHS system since I had private insurance, thanks to Julie’s expat position. Not so much. Private insurance is available to anyone in the UK and is not overwhelmingly expensive. They keep it inexpensive by linking it with the NHS system. Ultimately, you have to see your local NHS GP (general practitioner) and get recommended to a specialist, no matter how obvious your needs are. If you try to avoid this step, the private insurance will deny your claim. Also, most private insurance requires full upfront payment and then you personally get reimbursed by the insurance company, which could result in a big upfront cost depending on the procedure. Boo.

So I decided to meet with a GP at my local surgery (doctors office). I was told to come in during their walk in hours, between 8:30 and 11:00. I arrived when they opened at 8:30 to find a line of about 20 people. I waited for about 10 minutes before getting a 12:00pm appointment the same day. Interestingly, if you call for an appointment, it will be two weeks before a doctor will see you. Rarely are you the type of sick where waiting two weeks is appropriate or even possible. Oh well.

I came back at around noon and waited for about ten minutes. The nurses did not call for the next patient. Instead, they used an electronic ticker tat that displayed my name when the doctor was ready and what room number. I was hoping they would scroll some updates from the stock market or at least a few sport scores, but to no avail.

I meet with a GP in her office, where the difference between the US and the UK was blatantly clear. The GP’s office is more akin to that of a college professors office. Dark wood, bookshelves, big oak desk. There was a small exam table in the corner, but besides that, very few items that would make you think you were a doctors office. I felt more compelled to discuss possible senior thesis topics than my medical history.

We chatted for about ten minutes before she gave me a prescription for some antibiotics. No paperwork or payment when you depart. Simply walk out. It’s free. It was a strange feeling to not have a bill after seeing a doctor. I then took the prescription to the local pharmacy where it was filled and I paid £7.85. What is significant about that total is that basically all medicine is that cost. Doesn’t matter what you get. The exception is if you are over 60, when all medicine is free. Take that Medicare.

So overall I had a good experience with the NHS. The appointment process is a bit tedious, but we live within a ten minute walk of the office so heading over twice in a day is not the end if the world. If I needed serious medical attention, I think that I might still explore the private option. The wait time to see a NHS specialist can be up to six weeks, where as a private specialist can usually see you within a few days. It’s nice to have the option. At least I did not have to deal with a website to sign up. Oops, sorry America. Too soon?