Banter from Brabant

Friday, July 20, 2007

Health Care Systems

I recently had to see a doctor (nothing serious) and I must say it was a very interesting experience. My appointment was at 9:00am and I was instructed to arrive early to fill out paperwork given that it was my first visit. I arrived about 10 minutes early to find that the receptionist was not yet in the office. A couple of other people had arrived before me and naturally, we queued up in the order we arrived. The receptionist arrived about 5 minutes late – 9:05am. She rushed in, knocked on her own door (which I found rather puzzling), entered her office and then closed the door without so much as a word or acknowledgment. We all glanced at one another questioningly, but none of us said anything or made move to enter the receptionist’s office. Given that I was already late for the appointment and work, I was a bit irritated by this seeming incompetence.

About 5 minutes later, the receptionist opened the door and called in the first visitor. When she was done (as she was just given a form to fill out), the receptionist again shut the door without a word to the others waiting in line (and by this time, there was about 10 of us). This went on until I was finally seated in the waiting area (merely a hallway with a couple of chairs) to see the doctor. By this time, I was 40 minutes late for my 9:00am appointment – something that just wouldn’t fly in the US.

Finally at 10:10, I was seen by the doctor. At this point, I was wholly irritated and had been thinking about how inefficient this Belgian system is. While the health care may be cheap, I really questioned whether this is a better way. My confidence in the system was restored, however, when I saw the doctor.

While the process may be slow to see the doctor, the visit turned out to be rather efficient. In the US, I would have had to see the doctor, go to the lab to have tests run and then return to see the doctor. Here, it was a one-shot deal. The doctor did it all and I was in and out within 5 minutes – and I was very grateful for that. The only concern that I had was that she was not familiar with an allergy that I have to medication… and she didn’t seem all too concerned about it. She prescribed the medicine and told me to come back if I experienced a reaction. Fair enough, and luckily, I do not appear to be reacting to the meds.

There are three striking observations that I made outside of the efficiency issues. First, the US This visit made me understand that some things are really unnecessary - as well as wasteful. For instance, is it really necessary to wipe my hands (and other unmentionables) with alcohol pads before I give a urine sample? In Belgium, it certainly is not. In fact, the doctor didn’t even wear gloves when she accepted my sample (something I did find a little gross – especially when she shook my hand afterwards).
seems overly obsessed with sanitary measures – probably to a fault.

Secondly, you pay the doctor in cash for the visit – directly. I had to shovel out 20 euro on demand, and then I submit the bill myself to the insurance company. At least it was only 20 euro – I am sure this appointment would have been at least $200 in the US. Thank goodness for socialized health care!

Finally, the visit to the pharmacy proved interesting. I had my prescription filled immediately but instead of giving me the usual 10 antibiotic pills that are necessary, I was given a whole box of 50. I found this quite strange… what am I to do with the other 40 pills? Save them for a rainy day?

All in all, there are pros and cons to each system but if they found a way to integrate the pros from both, I think the turn around times per visit would be far more efficient. I was also impressed that the doctor seemed willing to spend all the time I needed without worry of the others who were waiting to see her. I did get to ask a few questions that I had from a more personal interest point of view and she didn’t seem to be annoyed with spending an extra couple of minutes in discussion.

And for those of you who are dying to know why I saw the doctor but can’t guess based on the info I provided, it turns out that I have a UTI. And for those of you who don’t know what that is – lucky you! I’ve had enough of them in my life and I think I should be on a list to get drugs on demand without seeing a doctor when they crop up. If only such a list existed…

There is more to come… we will soon write about our experiences with our Belgian friends, work and the next few months so stay tuned;)

Monday, July 09, 2007


In February a friend had a party in Brussels that coincided close enough in time to my birthday that it was considered to be for my birthday by the guests. This party was hosted by our (married) friends Nico and Luciana from Argentina/Spain/Italy... (Argentines seem to commonly have multiple citizenships). This party began with a game of Risk that lasted 7 hours and had to end with a peace agreement rather than world domination. Interestingly, another time we tried a round of Risk, the game also lasted 7 or more hours only to end in armistice rather than domination. This reflected a continuous shifting of alliances that effectively blocked significant gains made by anyone cashing in Risk cards (we got past the 60 armies mark with no victor!). For anyone that plays Risk... this is an unfathomable outcome.

In this particular risk game, it was an American from Louisiana and an Egyptian from Cairo playing together -- both good friends of ours -- and holding on to Africa most of the game. The Argentine of course struggled to hang on to South America while the girls (Beth, Luciana and Keisha of the Bahamas), with their German 'advisor' who was actually in the German Army, were centered around Greenland (Canada and Northern Europe). I held Australia after taking it from a Greek guy who was eventually relegated to Irkutsk and decided to end himself in a tragic display of Greek 'heroism' against the dominant power - at that point me. This crippled me significantly. However, the self-proclaimed victor (and decidedly dominant power at the end) -- after armistice was signed -- was an Italian that held most of Asia and North America.

Aside for that little spiel about the Risk game, what was interesting about this party was that 10 or 11 nationalities were represented and the party was a great time and went quite late. Everyone got along quite well.

Now, six months later, we had a party/BBQ in our backyard. Many of the same people were here. However, we also invited the friends of ours from Leuven (both those we met through Beth's program and some Flemish guys we met randomly at a bar and eventually became good friends with). This party had about 10 or 11 nationalities represented again, however, had one other aspect: a two crowd social division. While Beth and I, along with Bert and Peter the Flemish friends mixed between the two cliques, they themselves did not interact much with each other. Namely, the people from Leuven in Beth's program sat on one side of the lawn while the people from Brussels in my school sat on the other.

I find that it is interesting that people can become fast friends across continents when they have very little choice and know nobody, however, in less than a year, social groups have already coalesced and intermixing becomes more difficult. This reminded me of the dinner parties we used to have in Minneapolis, or should I say Kelley's dinner parties, where the St. Paul and the Minneapolis crowds did not mix voluntarily despite having mutual friends. Fascinating.