Bayside Corners: Contrast and compare the French and U.S. healthcare experience

It’s a slow Bayside news week, so I thought I’d share a personal tale from some Bayside residents.

My husband Tom and I went out for our first restaurant meal together since early March. El Chipotle, in the Sunny Brae Center, is open every day for dine-in lunch and dinner. It has a sheltered outside patio, a huge indoor space, all of the recommended COVID precautions, and it felt very safe. What a small special pleasure in this strange time.

That got me thinking about things that we take for granted. This time last year, Tom and I were headed to southern France for a vacation with family. Three days in, on a very quiet Sunday morning in a small town along the Canal du Midi, Tom began feeling unwell... short of breath, pain in his upper arm. I was able to call France’s version of 911 and a short time later, an ambulance arrived, with a doctor (!), nurse technician and driver, and a second back-up vehicle. 

Tests performed on site told them that he should go straight to hospital, and we were given the option of the closest, smaller hospital, or larger facility about 30 minutes away. We chose the latter.

Long story short, Tom was in various health care facilities for the next six weeks. He spent the first nine days at a hospital in Carcassonne. They did the angiography and all of the necessary tests so he could be assessed for surgery. He felt perfectly well during all of this time (in the U.S., I’m sure he would have been discharged), but the French doctors wanted him supervised. 

We were sent by medical taxi to consult with the cardiac surgeon and then transferred to a huge university hospital with a cardiac specialty unit in Toulouse, where he spent two weeks. He had quadruple bypass surgery, was five days in Cardiac ICU and then a regular cardiac unit. He was then transferred by medical taxi to a rehab facility where he spent another two weeks (they wanted him to stay a full month, but we needed to get home). 

Throughout all this I stayed nearby and visited every day (by bus and metro) and, toward the end, on the weekends, we went out for excursions in the beautiful city of Toulouse. By this time, Tom was easily able to walk many miles a day, navigate stairs, and so on.

So what was so unusual about all this? Almost everything. 

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First, continuity of care. When the emergency occurred I contacted our medical provider and insurances at home. But I couldn’t get any information. No one could tell me what would happen if I transferred Tom back to the U.S. for care. Where should we go? How would the surgery get authorized and scheduled? When could it be done? What would it cost? 

That lack of clarity led us to stay in France where all of this was absolutely seamless. The French doctors themselves urged us to stay as they didn’t trust this aspect of the U.S. system.

Second, the style of care. I was immediately struck by the difference in how medical staff interacted with patients. There was a lot less time spent looking at computer screens and entering information. Patients were encouraged to move around as much as they were able. It was common to see patients toting IV poles down in the cafeteria with family. 

When I later saw Tom’s medical records, I was astonished at how concise and clear they were. When I once requested my own records from a two-hour $3,500 ER visit here at home, I received about 30 pages of gobbledly-gook.

Third, the cost. I was able to put the cost of the first nine days stay on a credit card while I sorted out the details. Would your credit card cover that in the U.S.? 

We have long kept an emergency travel medical policy, renewed annually, which covers emergency medical evacuation (which could have been used in this case) or treatment. (Frequent travelers out there, I strongly recommend such policies which are incredibly cost-effective and the staff at ours was amazing in working with us to cover costs and get us home safely.) 

When all was said and done, the total cost of all of Tom’s care, from ambulance to diagnosis to transfer to major surgery to rehab (six weeks in all) was less than $50,000. 

The care was state-of-the-art. There was no process of authorizing and tracking every procedure, lab test and medication. If the doctors felt it necessary, it happened, and it was included in a flat daily rate for the level of care. The fee schedule for the first hospital was one half-page long.

When we were ready to go home, our insurance covered first class flights to San Francisco. The cost for those two tickets for a half-day plane ride was over $32,000! 

It really makes me wonder about priorities... and to realize how lucky we were that Tom’s emergency happened in France... even if we did miss out on our vacation.

This column is normally about Bayside news (or the activities of Bayside residents). Got something to share? Contact bayside[email protected] or (707) 599.3192.



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