El doctor will see you now

“Spain’s state health system is a command economy. My view of it is, of course, largely subjective. Once you have got beyond primary care, you are there to do as you are told. You fill out this form, stand in that queue, and remember that el doctor or la doctora knows best. Spaniards are normally wonderful, imaginative abusers of bureaucracy or rules of any kind. Given the chance they will charm, cheat or bulldoze their way through them. Stand them in front of a man or a woman in a white coat, however, and they go meekly wherever they are led. Doctors, pharmacists and even the owners of healthfood shops – who have adopted the uniform to hide their quackery – are all treated with a degree of respect, even awe, that their counterparts elsewhere could only dream of.”

Giles Tremlett, “Ghosts of Spain

 I can’t comment on the assessment of the Spanish psyche, but it does seem to me that the author’s Englishness is colouring his view of attitudes in his adopted home. In other words, it’s not so much that Spaniards trust and respect their doctors as the fact that the English mistrust and avoid their own. I’m lucky enough to get free annual health checks through my job in Brussels, and my experiences with the Belgian health system have been more than satisfactory, but it’s true that back in the UK I pretty much never went to the doctor as an adult, and never once went to hospital. I’m very lucky in that I almost never get seriously ill, have no inherited defects and have never been involved in a major accident, but I’d also be more wary of using UK hospitals compared to their continental European equivalents due to the way they seems to be organised, run and funded (or rather, not funded).

But there’s something else behind my (and Giles’, and, I suspect, all Englishmen’s) attitude to doctors. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, then his body is the most secret, private room in that castle, and very few people are ever admitted therein. Allowing a stranger in a white coat to prod, poke,  intrude and investigate is, for us, the ultimate invasion of privacy, and is only to be borne under the most pressing of circumstances. It reminds me of the relationship between the king and his doctor in The Madness Of George III, when the monarch becomes increasingly incensed by the medic’s impertinent questions about his health and sternly informs him that the colour of a man’s water is no-one’s business but his own.


3 thoughts on “El doctor will see you now

  1. J June 4, 2009 / 10:08 pm

    I have no problem with the care I receive here in the U.S., just with the lack of care so many get. Or don’t get.


  2. kezza July 13, 2009 / 8:42 pm

    Having lived there for a long time myself I think the writer has a point about how the Spaniards view doctors. The real reason they venerate them though is that as a rule the Spaniards I know border on hypochondria. The first sign of a sniffle and they’re on the antibiotics. If they have children a favourite occupation is to stand around and talk about the various illnesses their offspring suffer from. So I don’t think he’s ungrateful. Just insightful.


    • simon July 14, 2009 / 8:10 am

      Maybe you’re right about the adult Spaniards, but as for discussing children’s illnesses, I know quite a few parents from different cultures and this seems to be a fairly universal theme. Like the weather, when conversation runs dry you know this is the one topic on which all parents have something to say: “Has yours had chickenpox yet?”, “No, but he had a terrible ear infection last year!”, etc…


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