It all started on Friday night, when I began to experience stomach pains. Had I been French, I might well have gone to the doctor straight away, or at least first thing on Saturday morning, but being British, I swallowed as many paracetamol as I could and hoped it would pass.
By 5 am on Sunday morning, the pain definitely hadn't passed and in fact had got much worse. Unable to ignore it any longer, I woke up Understanding Frenchman and told him I needed to go to the doctor. With even the nearest open pharmacy being several suburbs away and no on-call doctor in town, our only option was to go to A&E at the local hospital, which last time I needed it was a 5 minute walk from my house but has moved and is now a 20 minute drive away. (It's worth knowing that in France it's the norm for A&E to be your only option out of hours, as very few places now have a medecin de garde.)
As it turned out, A&E was the right place for me anyway, as by ten o'clock (when there were actually some senior doctors on duty), they had decided that I needed surgery. Fairly minor surgery, but requiring a stay in hospital nonetheless.
Lying on the hospital trolley with a drip in my arm, I joked to Understanding Frenchman that this was perhaps my comeuppance for complaining about how ridiculously poor-value my mutuelle has been over the past few years. Not that I have a problem with paying for good healthcare, but my current mutuelle combines spectacularly high charges with spectacularly low benefits and some of the most incompetent administration I have ever seen, for which reasons I'm very glad it will be changing soon!
Anyway, the whole experience turned out to be exactly what one would expect of the French healthcare system: fantastic care combined with some totally risible paperwork. I suspect that had I gone in with a similar complaint in the UK, especially if I had gone on the Friday instead of waiting until Sunday, I would have been sent away to take more paracetamol and see if it got better. In France, within about half an hour of arriving, I had seen a doctor and was hooked up to an IV that was dripping delightful painkillers directly into my bloodstream. They operated the same day and throughout my whole stay, the doctors and nurses were highly competent, helpful and extremely friendly. I stayed in 3 days for an operation that, according to the internet, is often done as an out-patient procedure.
The bureaucratic laughs came at the end. To check out of the hospital, I had to collect my prescriptions and details of follow-up visits from the staff nurse. I even got a prescription for my taxi home! But then, all by myself and with a bag slightly heavier than I really wanted to carry, I had to make my way to another office where there was a queue of about ten people waiting to hand over their papers to collect another piece of paper that would actually allow them to leave the hospital with all the documents they needed and finally, to have a long discussion with the man at the reception about why my taxi prescription said "aller" when I was actually going home.
So, full marks to French healthcare for the actual treatment, but surely "medically excellent" and "free at point of delivery and with minimal bureaucratic hassle" are not completely incompatible ideals?