How to Be Ill – And Get Better – in America

Springfield General Hospital from 'The Simpsons' (Photo via Simpsons Wiki)

The fine residents of Springfield may get less-than-spectacular medical care, but you can get great treatment here in the States. (Photo via Simpsons Wiki)

If you like roller coasters — particularly the iffy wooden kind that hasn’t been serviced since the Victorian era and might derail at any moment — then perhaps you’ll enjoy the hair-raising, stomach-flipping challenge of dealing with health insurance officials and hospital finance departments in the U.S. (More on this later.) The good news is, if you do get ill here and happen to have really good insurance or pots of money, plus a high tolerance for petty bureaucracy, this is arguably best place in the world to get treatment.

You can be fairly certain that you won’t wait long to see a specialist in the U.S. And who you see — provided they take your insurance — is up to you. If you are admitted to hospital, it might look and feel more like a mid-range hotel than a repository for the sick. But before you decide to check into your local Emergency Room for a holiday, consider the following.

For every hospital stay or test ordered, there’s a heap of impenetrable paperwork. Letters will arrive that you’ll need degrees in medicine and accountancy to comprehend. And then there are the endless phone calls to your insurance company to ask why, exactly, you’ve been charged for something they promised was covered in full. This is the last thing you need when you’re ill. I recommend handing off the admin, preferably to someone with the patience of several saints and a pack of nuns. It might sound extreme but consider calling your provider now while you’re well to ask if you can pre-authorize a proxy to handle your case should you become too ill or stressed to do it yourself.

Keep a healthcare slush fund at all times. Because unless you happen to have bullet-proof insurance — and to establish this you’ll need to spend many days poring over your policy, preferably with a dozen or so medical lawyers taking notes over your shoulder — it’s quite possible that you’ll end up paying out real, life-savings-decimating sums to get treatment. The terms “deductible” and “co-pay” will likely become your new trigger words for a panic attack.

If in doubt, head to an ER. They legally have to treat you, whether or not you have insurance or the means to pay. You can handle — and quite possibly negotiate down — the bill at a later date.

Make sure that friends and family who are planning to visit for a longer than average holiday have adequate travel insurance. Though many cheap and accessible policies sold in the U.K. boast that they’re valid for a year, if you read the terms and conditions, you might discover that they only cover individual trips for up to a few weeks at a time. Suggest they look into policies aimed at backpackers. Then read — and re-read — the small print.

The fact that most U.S. health insurance policies demand that you pay something every time you go to the doctors will encourage even the most devoted hypochondriac to stay away from the medical establishments. You’ll never head to your GP with a sniffle again. To further avoid unnecessary and costly appointments, get acquainted with your local drugstore. Discover the American equivalents of the over-the-counter medicines you’re used to in the U.K., and run your symptoms past a pharmacist. They’ll let you know — for free — if you need to seek further medical advice or treatment. Your health insurer may also provide a no fee helpline or offer up doctors and nurses to answer questions online.

If you do shell out for a consultation, get as much out of it as you can. Mentally scan your entire body for anomalies, and don’t be afraid to reel them off in a single doctor’s appointment. Remember, you’re paying for their time, so get your money’s worth.

See also:
10 Tips for Brits on Surviving the U.S. Healthcare System

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • expatmum

    I would warn people in big cities that sometimes there is a surprising wait to see specialists. Here in Chicago I can never get into my OB/GYN without booking at least 3 months in advance, and I’m currently trying to get an Ear, Nose & Throat appointment for my son, – sometime in 2013 but it’s not looking very promising.

  • alex

    “You can be fairly certain that you won’t wait long to see a specialist in the U.S.” Ha! it took me a year to get in to see a dermatologist, then they cancelled on me for an “emergency” and it took me several more months to get in after that. How long does it take to see a specialist in the UK that speedy appointments is a plus to US medicine? 3 years? And then paying a $40 copay and about $200 for medication after the appointment. And I have good insurance. Also check what age your children are covered. While my brother is covered by our medical insurance, there was a different age for dental which, of course, we were not aware of until they refused our claim. So there went our food money for the next 2 months…

  • gn

    If in doubt, head to an ER.

    Absolutely terrible advice. The ER is legally obliged to treat you, but will charge ridiculous amounts of money. Here’s an article in the New York Times about ERs’ crazy billing practices

    Only go to the ER if you think you may have a life-threatening condition. You’ll almost always be better off going to an urgent care clinic, or calling your doctor or health insurance triage hotline.

  • Brittany

    This is terrible advice.
    Don’t go to the ER for just anything. Only go if it’s serious. And waits for specialists are really long.

    • Krista Kay Anderson

      What part of the country are you in where you have to wait a long time for a specialist? Just curious – in Minnesota we don’t.

      • Brittany

        I live in Pennsylvania.

  • Jess

    ER’s are better if you are bleeding profusely or are dying or you are missing a body part or you get into a serious accident.

    • Olivia


      If it’s not an emergency you’re best off going to an urgent care clinic. You get the same care in half the time for at least half the price.

  • Helen Barker

    What important advice for the community! – ‘Small print’ and reading the terms and conditions is something which can make or break – in fact – it can cost you a personal fortune.

    Checking contracts – and ‘small print’ for that matter, is something what should never be ignored. Good advice comes from Check-A-Contract – For a small fee they highlight the small print, advise on changes, deletions or additions in contracts and agreements. Turnaround for contracts is less than 72 hrs and all contracts are worked on by qualified top UK solicitors. Worth well knowing, especially if you have to look out for small print in contracts, bank accounts, signing rental agreements and so on.

  • Mark Smith

    The whole topic makes me feel physically sick.

    We are self-employed (i.e. no recourse to the discounts afforded by group health insurance), and have been financially decimated during our first four years living here by various medical conditions.

    Now we have a son and would like one or two more, and I am seriously having to consider switching to a salaried position to afford our healthcare. This system has itself had a profound negative impact on our health and wellbeing…