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A willing immigrant to a new land often looks forward to getting to experience most aspects of life in the new country. But there are a few that they don't look forward to - things like dealing with the traffic department, or paying customs tolls, or so forth. And probably near the top of the list in terms of "would rather not have to deal with it" is experiencing the medical system in the new country, simply because it means, "you or someone around you got sick".

Sooner or later,however, you're going to experience it. I've had enough little tastes of it by now to feel like writing a bit about it here, since Daily Kos often seems to have interest in how other healthcare systems around the world fare and in light of the recent US supreme court decision.

And I like it.

I'd long known the statistics. Iceland has one of the world's longest lifespans. This is impressive given how americanized the Icelandic diet is these days, and that Iceland spends less than half of what America does per-capita. But what is the care like?

(Above: How americanized is the Icelandic diet? To the point where there's even a restaurant called "American Style" a couple blocks from my home)

I already wrote about my first experience with the Icelandic healthcare system, when a man who was helping me move boxes into my apartment collapsed, stopped breathing, and nearly died in my doorway. To sum up, the emergency services talked the man who came to help through performing CPR, the paramedics arrived in a matter of minutes, and quickly took over and stabilized the situation. But that was just a brief glimpse of the system, from the outside.

Since then I've gone in for some tests and had a bladder infection that I needed antibiotics for. Let's describe the process for dealing with the latter case a bit more.

Over the weekend I had noticed the classic symptoms of a bladder infection; I've had them a couple times before in my life. Not wanting to go to emergency care and not very familiar with the medical system, I waited until Monday and then asked a coworker what I should do. He explains to me that for regular non-emergency appointments you call Heilslugæsla, but that there is "Læknavaktin" (shift doctors) available after 5PM on weekdays and all during the weekend. Setting up a primary care physician / non-emergency appointment takes time (I am told usually about a month wait), but for sickness where time matters, there's little wait. He makes a quick call for me and I have an appointment set up an hour later.

 (Above: Smáralind mall, next to Heilsugæslan Hvammur, the medical clinic. Please pay no attention to the mall's humorous appearance from overhead.)

The clinic is a building just west of Debenham's department store by the Smáralind mall. I walk in and talk with the receptionist. She first assumes that I have no insurance. However, to move to Iceland legally to work, you have to have to have health insurance for the first six months (which my employer paid for). After six months of legal residence, regardless of your status, you're added to the national health registry. I correct the receptionist and am given the correct cost. The copay for the visit with insurance (private or national) is 1000 krónur ($8 USD). Had I not had insurance and had to pay the full cost, it would have been 8000 krónur ($65 USD).

I wait briefly and am then called back to the doctor, himself an immigrant (from India). I start out speaking in Icelandic, he switches it to English, but we switch back to Icelandic later on. He looks at my symptoms, checks my temperature (old-style oral thermometer), and then says that given that I've had a bladder infection before and know the symptoms, he sees no need for culturing or anything like that unless the antibiotics don't work. He punches something into his tablet computer.

I ask how I get and fill a prescription. The short answer? You don't. It goes into the national computer system, keyed on my kennitala (unique, public ID number for each person), and the information is instantly available at every apótek (pharmacy) in the country. That brief bit of typing he did was all that was needed. I thank him, head out, and drive around until I spot an apótek and pop inside.

(Above: "Lyfja", a common chain of apótek)

Apótek (the word is related to the English word "apothecary") are more than just pharmacies; there are a number of products that you can only get there that you can get in grocery stores in the US (for example, headache medicine). As a consequence, since they're more in demand, they're also more common and not difficult to find. I go up to the counter and give the woman my kennitala (no calling in the medication in advance or anything like that). Two minutes later,she hands me my antibiotics, which cost something like 1600 krónur ($13 USD).

Cheap. Effective. Simple. Universal. Traits I like in a healthcare system. While my view on the Icelandic healthcare system may shift in time as I use it more, so far, it gets top marks.


P.S. - Totally different topic, but it turns out that one of the two leading presidential candidates in Iceland openly admits to not being Christian. Wow, bonus points for honesty. Áfram, Þóra!

Originally posted to Rei on Thu Jun 28, 2012 at 08:15 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight and Single Payer California.

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