I’m not normally prone to panic, but this was no normal medical crisis for me. My wife’s uncle, his television and his living room all reside in Sweden, in a town called Eskilstuna, population 67,359, according to 2015 figures. I was there on vacation with my family.
I was about to come face-to-face with Sweden’s vaunted health care system. To my surprise, it was not a pleasant experience.
Sweden’s healthcare system is important to the discussion in this country, prevalent among some Democratic presidential candidates, about whether the United States should adopt a single-payer, universal health care system.
Sweden often comes up as an example of why this would be better than what we currently have. My experience offers some context.
In many ways, it’s not fair to use Sweden as an example because, for much of the time that it has offered universal care, it has been a mostly homogenous nation. However, the results of its socialized care system truly have been impressive. Statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show Sweden has among the best cancer and heart attack survival rates in Europe. Life expectancy, at 82.2 years, is higher than the European average and well above the 78.7 years in the U.S.
But now, because of an influx in immigrants and refugees, and an aging population, the system is facing a crisis. It isn’t keeping up with demand, despite Swedes spending 11 percent of GDP on health care, the third highest amount in Europe and rising. The Lancet recently reported that Sweden’s population has grown by 13 percent over the last 20 years, but that its number of hospital beds has declined by 30 percent, representing the worst shortage in Europe. Health care is a constant issue of concern in elections.
Two years ago, in one northern city of 20,000 people, the government shut down the only maternity ward. Women there now have to drive 124 miles for services. The Business Times said midwives in this town are teaching couples how to give birth in cars.
The New York Times recently reported on the impact waves of refugees are having in Sweden, many of whom come with major health problems. “Complaints about delays in the healthcare system have become legion, with wealthier people resorting to private insurance,” the paper said.
I wasn’t thinking of any of this as I dialed 112 (Sweden’s equivalent of 911) and spoke to a dispatcher. I was, however, concerned that the dispatcher had to ask which city I was in, then transfer me to a local number that rang three times before someone picked up. I was even more concerned when that person asked for my address, something immediately available to emergency dispatchers here.
It took 15 minutes for an ambulance to come. I later was told we were lucky. My mother-in-law had fallen and cut herself during a recent visit to the same home, and the 112 dispatcher said it would be at least an hour before someone could arrive.
Our emergency happened on a Friday night. After several hours in the emergency room, we were told my wife’s uncle would have to be admitted and kept at least until Monday. Why? Because the doctor he needed does not work weekends.
This story has a good ending. My wife’s uncle was sent home last week and was doing well. He will have multiple visits each day from nurses who will feed him, give him medicine, get him in and out of bed and make sure he is OK. All of this will cost him a pittance out-of-pocket (and everyone else there plenty in taxes). But I couldn’t help wondering how long it would be until that service is curtailed, as well.
The U.S., much bigger and more complex, has a long history of rapid growth and immigration. These are not bad things, but would a single-payer plan be the best way to handle the health demands they produce?
Bernie Sanders recently said his universal healthcare plan would cost between $30 trillion and $40 trillion over 10 years. Before anyone uses Sweden as an example of why this would work, they ought to look at Sweden as an example of why it probably wouldn’t.