Sweden’s “free healthcare” system has many downsides, such as long wait times and poor communication that often make America’s healthcare system seem superior (especially pre-Obamacare).
I am an American born and raised in Southern California who was diagnosed with epilepsy at 25 years old. At 28 years old I moved to Sweden to live permanently with my Swedish partner and started looking into Sweden’s healthcare system in order to obtain medication and see a neurologist.
Since relocating to Sweden I’ve only dabbled with the local health clinic to obtain medication and obtain a referral to a neurologist (I have yet to see the neurologist). These may seem like basic tasks that are easy to accomplish, but it has actually been a pain in the neck.
Before I get into this discussion, I want to mention that I am located in Northern Sweden where there is low population (most of Sweden’s population is south of Stockholm). The low population may contribute to the poor quality service I’ve received considering better quality tends to be in more populated areas; however, I have heard from locals that the service used to be better. Other Americans in Sweden have also shared similar complaints.
I obtained basic epilepsy medication before I had a Swedish “personal number,” the equivalent to a social security number. When I did not have a personal number I had a difficult time seeing a doctor and paid a very steep price for the medication. Eventually I obtained a personal number which made working with the healthcare system easier since I was now officially in Sweden’s system and qualified for state healthcare. But even then healthcare and medication was not free.
One of the main challenges in Sweden’s healthcare system I’ve experienced is simply getting someone on the phone. In the US many doctors offices and health clinics have receptionists who answer the phone immediately. From my experience, the receptionists tend to know what they are doing or have someone to turn to if they need more information, and can answer my question on the spot or call back.
Sweden’s health clinics, on the other hand, do not have receptionists but instead have actual nurses answer the phone. Since nurses often have many tasks on their shoulders, they do not have time to sit next to the phone to answer whenever it rings. The phone line is never answered directly but instead goes straight to an automated system that says someone will call back at a specific time, which is usually within 45 minutes (long wait time in my opinion).
A patient usually must call before noon just to receive a call back from a nurse. Calling after noon risks receiving no call back on that day since the nurses may be booked and not have time to get to new calls. Some Americans said they call at exactly 7am in order to receive a call back.
Thankfully the nurses are good at calling back at the set time. Unfortunately sometimes the nurses are clueless about what the patient is asking for and will tell them to call back when they have more information and hang up. Usually there is no direct call back line, so the patient must call the automated voice system and set a call back time, yet again waiting up to 45 minutes. If it is later in the day, the patient is out of luck and must call back the next morning. It can take days to have a question answered.
Once I called the local health clinic on a regular week day and the phone line hung up all day like there was an error. There was no voice messaging system whatsoever that explained the clinic’s schedule or what was going on. This worried me as I needed medication for epilepsy and no one at the health clinic would answer the phone. I am a 45 minute drive away from the health clinic so it is difficult for me to just pop in and ask them questions directly, but there have been times where I just said screw the phone system, I’m going to talk to them the next time I’m in town.
I decided I wanted to establish a relationship with a neurologist in case I ever needed anything. I set up an appointment with a local health clinic to obtain a referral to the neurologist. After waiting two weeks I finally saw the nurse, which I actually had to pay out of pocket to see, showing that Sweden’s healthcare system isn’t “free,” despite what many Americans believe.
I thought the nurse would take my vitals since I was a new patient, but to my surprise the nurse recorded no information about me, not even height and weight. He just sat across from me, asked me about my health history and why I want to see a neurologist. After talking for less than five minutes he said he would refer me to the nearest neurologist. I knew I would most likely have to come back for some kind of initial exam. He smiled nervously and looked a bit embarrassed as he mentioned Swedish patients are having to wait long times for care.
Another two weeks went by until I received a referral in the mail (now a month of waiting simply to receive a referral). The letter noted I was scheduled to see a neurologist and a hospital three hours away in two months (seriously, two months). Included was a blank blood test document and a note requesting that I go to the nearest health clinic to have the blood test done, which I am planning to have done tomorrow.
Please share this article the next time you hear someone praise Sweden’s “free” healthcare system. The world should know how countries like Sweden really operate. I wonder what I will share after I see the neurologist! Occasionally I worry what would happen if I was in an emergency.
Lauren Ell is an American blogger born and raised in Southern California and is currently based in Sweden. She discusses Epilepsy, Politics and Fun. Professionally Ell is an Online Marketing Consultant and Virtual Assistant. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.