Spike Milligan (1918-2002) has an epitaph written in Gaelic on his tombstone which says “I told you I was ill”.

If you’re going to be ill the best place to do it is in France according to the World Health Organisation, who at their last ranking study (albeit in 2000) put the French Health system at #1 of 191 countries (Italy was 2nd, UK 18th, Australia 32nd, US 37th

At the same time, I am somewhat dismayed at the habit of over-prescription that does exist here.
In Australia if you have a cold, the doctor will tell you to have a hot cup of tea and whisky and go to bed for a few days.
In France you will be given a nasal spray, medication for the cough, tablets for the pain, something else for your chest and so on. I am sure that some people arrive at the pharmacy wearing hernia belts in anticipation of the heavy load to carry home.

I questioned my local doctor in our small village about this and he said that the reason is that doctors who don’t prescribe lots of medication are considered inadequate by their patients, and so they will then go and seek a different medical practitioner. We told him that we were from a different culture that believed that the less our doctor prescribed the healthier we must be, and he has adjusted our medication levels accordingly.

The rest of the health system, even if there are indications that it may be financially unsustainable, works with impressive precision. I have to say that it would be sad if the French health system went the same way as the English NHS, about which my English friends never stop complaining.

One aspect that I found interesting was that apart from my village GP, all the specialists were women. In both the lead-up to and the hospitalisation itself, the only male I encountered was the orderly who wheeled me into the operating theatre. I have to admit that I saw this as just being another positive element of the whole French health system.

portrait of three female medical personnel

By the way, it was not all free. I did have to pay €35 to have telephone, TV and internet access in my hospital room.



  1. Luke Marson says:

    I have to agree about this. An ex-girlfriend’s mother had discovered a lump on one of her breasts but had repeatedly been turned away by her local Doctor in the UK. After moving to France she visited the local Doctor who was horrified that she had not been tested and started the ball rolling for a highly effecient (and correct) diagnosis and treatment process to cure the discovered Breast Cancer she had. She is now fit and healthy, although earlier diagnosis by British medical professionals would have provided some health benefits. And had she not moved to France she almost certainly would have not survived…

    • leshayman says:

      Hi Luke,
      i have lots of similar stories.
      I believe that countries have to cut costs in healthcare, but it needs to be done in areas such as overmedication rather than in critical cases. For example the French Government overstocked the anti swine flu vaccine by € 700 million, now sitting unused and wasted. This kind of money can cure a lot of ills.

  2. Dominic Wakefield says:

    Hi Les,
    Read with interest this one on Health Service – having lived with both systems (UK & France) I am not convinced that France is better. I do agree that the service in France is good but…
    Firstly I think we do complain about the NHS so something can’t be right but my own experience is that it is not that bad. When the GP thinks things are serious – the NHS does move quickly – Denise had very fast service with lumps in funny (fun) places contrary to Luke’s experience. And the queues for walk in emergency care at hospitals seem long in France & the UK. It seems that UK service is variable depending on your GP.
    The second point is about the NHS vs others (eg France) – I look at it as a value proposition. In the UK, we pay far less than France does in taxes for the service – and we have the option of topping up the service with private medical insurance (as do the French with extra care taxes – mutuel stuff). The combined tax and private insurance in the UK is still less than the French tax for health care. So I remain to be convinced about the rankings that health services receive in the world as I am not sure that they take into account the cost / value equation. And the thought that I am paying a lot of tax so that people can stock up the larder with medicines…..which they do in France.
    My bet is that if we were given the choice of what we pay for and what we get – we might look at it differently.

  3. leshayman says:

    Hi Dom,
    I agree about cost/value as being important, but it is the speed of response that I am impressed with.
    I know of people who are still sitting on an NHS wait-list for vein ops similar to mine (even with top-ups) because they are not seen as life threatening. I was also impressed with the fact that I could pick my entire medical team of specialists rather than relying on “the kindness of strangers”.

  4. Sean Le Leprichaun says:

    Les, When i had an emergency back op in Bordeaux in 2006 i was blown away by the resources made available and the speed with which my problem was dealt with. It was what i always assumed was only possible in a “private” healthcare service. I keep wondering how this is possibly sustainable on a long term basis, with an aging population and developments in medical research and technology keeping people going for longer and therefore using more healthcare services than earlier generations- it seems that even in France some difficult choices will ultimately force themselves to the top of the pile – more social rupture on the horizon. Remember the words of PJ O’Rourke “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.

  5. leshayman says:

    Hi Sean,
    I love PJO … i think he may be the smartest man in America, and love his commentaries (like yours above) to all of life.
    I also agree that the level of healthcare in France is unsustainable and just throwing more money at it is not the answer, as i do believe that there is a lot of waste that needs to be taken out.
    One of my favourite PJO words of wisdom is “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys”.

  6. peter jones says:

    Having had many happy holidays staying with French friends in the past they remarked on the benefits and extremes of the French health care system. This helped me start to appreciate the wide global variations not just the obvious as in delivery but in expectations. If any French health care professionals could get in touch I would be keen to connect and ‘compare notes’.
    Best regards,

    Peter Jones
    Community Mental Health Nurse Nursing Home Liaison NHS
    and Independent Scholar & Informatics Specialist
    RMN, RGN, CPN(Cert.), PGCE, BA(Hons) Comp/Phil, PG(Dip)COPE.
    Hodges’ Health Career – Care Domains – Model
    h2cm: help2Cmore – help-2-listen – help-2-care

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