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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

Health Special

Are you Sick Yet?
Eva Hua

hen ex-pats get ill in Russia, they usually make their way immediately to the airport instead to a local hospital. What is behind the prejudice of foreigners not to trust the Russian health-care system and how bad is it in reality?

“I’m in a hospital. Yes, in a hospital in Moscow, because I had an emergency appendix operation. I am fine, yes really!” Oliver, from Germany who lives in Moscow got to feel what health-care in Russia is like at first hand. He was admitted to the the Medicinskogo Zentra Upravlenia Delami Presidenta Rossiyskoy Federaciy ZKB, where Boris Yeltsin used to recover, frequently, from heart surgery in 1996. “The food and service could be better, but overall everything looks quite OK.” Not everybody is as lucky as Oliver, who enjoys a single room with colour TV in the hospital on Rublovskoye Shosse, along which government officials make their way home to their villas. Oliver’s ambulance rushed him to the hospital, all paid by the an additional, voluntary health-care program organised his former employer.

Though Russia has free health-care for their citizens stated in their constitution, its quality is often questionable. Antonida, a young Russian woman remembers her student times, when she was in hospital: “The clinic was crowded and they put me in a bed on the corridor. It was winter, and a few homeless people were lying a few meters away from me, seeking shelter from the cold weather.”

As opposed to the American approach, as in the film from Michael Moore “Sicko”, Russians do not have to fear losing a finger or two because they cannot afford treatment. But a visit to the doctor is not a holiday. Many employers offer additional voluntary health-care programs, either fully paid by them or partly paid by their employees. With packages ranging from basic to business and standard to VIP, the portfolio of clinics and centres listed in their offers reflect the surcharge people are willing to pay.

Many clinics have reportedly outdated equipment and especially stories of misdiagnosis and unhygienic incidents scare most ex-pats to engage often expensive health-care in their countries of origin, leaving them double- or tripleinsured. Several medical centres specialise in treating foreigners, providing service in various languages (e.g. American, European or Scandinavian Medical Centres). In private facilities the final bill can be far more expensive than in Russian state clinics. A general medical test for work permit reasons costs about 50 Euros (2000 roubles) in a state clinic, and includes a bureaucratic way of getting it paid and done, in comparison to 300-400 Euros in the European Medical Centre, where the whole procedure is carried quickly, efficiently and with the minimum of stress.

It seems that ex-pats choose Russian health-care only as a back-up option, when they can’t make it back to their home country to get treatment. A CEO of a German company reported that after slipping on an icy street at night, leaving his arm with an open fracture, he stopped at a local Medpunkt only for first aid, where a doctor, scared of local junkies opened the door together with his guarding German shepherd dog, who seemed to live in the same room where patients were treated. Instead of an ambulance, he afterwards took a local gipsy taxi directly to the airport to get the first flight out.

You think an ambulance saves lives? Then you haven’t been to Russia yet. At least in Moscow even ambulances struggle with the difficult traffic conditions. “Sometimes it takes 20 minutes, sometimes it can be more than an hour,” notes Antonida, although to be fair, a lot of this is due to the traffic. The construction of Russian apartment buildings does not support first aid procedures. Artem, a local journalist was involved, helping first aid workers carry a heart attack patient to the car, “we carried him down in a bed-sheet, because the stretcher just didn’t fit in the elevator and through the corridor.”

Whether to trust health-care in Russia or not is up to the patient. To change its bad reputation in many ex-pats’ minds, it will take improvements in both quality and affordability of services.

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