I moved to New Delhi a year and a half ago from New York for a new job with a newspaper. When I arrived in India's capital, I figured if I was going to live in the country, I might as well get used to the food, the water and the bacteria that doesn't seem to bother too many natives. I ordered juices, ate cold salads and drank the un-bottled water that restaurants bring customers for free. But I learned the hard way there are better methods for adjusting your body to the new climate. Less than two weeks into my time there, I found myself vomiting at the foot of a 12th century monument, the Qutb Minar.
I had anticipated getting sick in India. Since I had elevated carelessness to the level of doctrine, I had almost guaranteed it. But it was something I hadn't prepared for. I had no idea how to navigate the Indian healthcare system. How would I find a doctor? What if I had to go to the hospital? How different from the American system would it be?
What I hadn't anticipated was that India's treatment would turn out to be so good. And cheap. Unless you happen to be one of the hundreds of millions of Indians who are poor and don't live in a major metropolitan area. The Indian healthcare system is an anarchic hodgepodge, with little insurance, little regulation and a range of services offered by hundreds of government-run, trust-run and corporate hospitals. The care it produced for me was fast, effective, courteous and cheaper than American medicine, even when adjusted for the lower cost of living. But that was the care it produced for me, a middle-class woman in the big city. As America considers healthcare reform, the Indian system is a testament to both the triumphs and the pitfalls of letting the free market heal people.
At first I fought the suggestion to visit a doctor with my stomach bug. I rested and didn't eat much for a few days, hoping it would disappear on its own, like stomach bugs tend to do. I thought that making an appointment, and waiting to see a doctor, and getting ahold of any medication in India, would take more time than just getting better on my own. After all, it took almost 17 hours of phone calls and store visits, and two instances of crying hysterically to customer service reps, for my cellphone to work. If just getting a basic telephone connection was so much effort, I didn't want to think about what a visit to the doctor would be like. But after the third day of diarrhea, and continued inability to eat anything without being hit with an overwhelming wave of nausea, I caved. "OK, let's call a doctor," I told my friends who were taking care of me.
It was about 9:30 in the morning. My friend, who works for an outsourcing firm, called a gastroenterologist -- not a general practitioner but a specialist -- and set up an appointment for 10 a.m. We drove to the hospital, a mile away. It looked brand-new; the floors were shiny and everything glistened. The staff was courteous and the whole place was quiet. The doctor called me in at 10:02. He diagnosed the problem as a bacterial one, gave me a list of what to eat and prescribed a course of antibiotics. The pharmacy counter where I could pick up the drugs was just outside his office. The cost to see the doctor? $6. The pharmacy bill was about $1. Total cost, $7, with no insurance company involvement whatsoever.
Before I left New York, I had spent $20 just on a copay to visit a doctor and get a blood test done, another $20 copay to pick up the test results, and a third $20 installment for a tetanus shot. That was $60, plus whatever my insurance company paid, just so I could get a clean bill of health.
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