Healthcare. That word in the United States draws controversy from all sides of the spectrum. Our nation’s healthcare reform debate is an ongoing political issue, as the United States is still the only industrialized democracy without universal health insurance.
Imagine a small island nation over seven thousand miles away. Here, residents may visit a clinic down the street and meet with a doctor they haven’t seen before, without scheduling an appointment. When meeting with the physician, they present a medical card that contains a chip with all their medical records. The doctor has immediate access to these patients’ medical history, any drugs they are taking, and other important health information.
Though quite different from what we’re used to in the United States, the above scenario depicts the healthcare system in Taiwan. When I visited last summer and stayed with my cousin and his family, I had the chance to learn more about how the country’s health insurance system works. Since 1995, Taiwan, with 23 million residents, has had a universal healthcare system called the National Health Insurance (NHI). This form of socialized medical care allows Taiwanese citizens and residents to enjoy the benefits of a single-payer health insurance system.
My first week in Taipei, where my cousin lives, his three-year old daughter came down with a cold. On a Saturday morning, I tagged along with his wife and the child to the hospital.
What first caught my attention was how no appointment had to be made; another that struck me was how little time we had to wait at the clinic. Within a few minutes, a pediatrician escorted us to her office and my cousin-in-law handed her a medical card. My cousin’s daughter was given a checkup and rescribed some medicine. What also surprised me was that the medicine only cost 100 NT, which is just over US$3.
Though Taiwanese citizens have equal access to healthcare, the country spends only about 6.6% of its GDP on health expenditures, while the United States spends more than 17%. Residents of Taiwan pay a monthly fee for the NHI themselves, and their companies pay for a portion of the fee. The vast majority of patients and doctors in Taiwan are satisfied with this convenient and affordable system.
Of course, there are also costs to having unlimited access to healthcare. With a lack of funds, the Taiwanese government has had to borrow money from banks. Additionally, with the convenience of healthcare, there is a large number of patients relying on too few doctors. When patients pay frequent visits to the doctor, it causes doctors to limit the amount of time each patient can be seen.
With a system that promises equal healthcare access, Taiwanese residents take care of each other. In the United States, healthcare is seen more as the responsibility of an individual. Perhaps these two nations’ different systems stem from this cultural disparity.