For those of you who don’t live in the UK, this is what it’s like going to the doctors’ there:
You: Hello, I’m here to see Dr Frimbly.
Receptionist: Great, take a seat and she’ll call you through shortly.
For those of you who don’t live in Germany, this is what it’s like going to the doctors’ here:
You: Hello, I’m here to see Dr Schlampitz.
Receptionist: OK, and what is wrong with you?
In case it’s not clear, there is a key difference between the two scenarios. In Germany, the receptionist expects you to DESCRIBE YOUR HEALTH ISSUE IN PUBLIC. Yes. In front of the waiting room full of annoyed grannies and pregnant ladies, who have been waiting for a while and have nothing better to do than to eavesdrop, your not-medically-qualified receptionist requires you to describe your raging hemorrhoids/sixth bout of chlamydia/gout-related halitosis.
The first time this happened, I could scarcely believe my ears. It’s not like my reason for going to the doctor’s was particularly embarrassing, but I wasn’t in the mood to share it with this roomful of strangers. Things got worse when I first had to go to the ‘Frauenarzt’ (for a blood test – because evidently female blood is different to male blood) and the receptionist wanted me to declare the last time I had had my period. I half expected her to also ask what I’d had for lunch and what colour my knickers were.
Now listen: I know that people tend to be much more frank and open in Germany – and on the continent in general – and that would not be a challenge in comparison to most Southern Brits who would rather chew broken glass than have a conversation at the bus stop. But this really seems a step too far. And this is just one of the several reasons why I loathe going to the doctor in Berlin.
In Germany, most doctors are self-employed, setting up their own practice with just themselves and a couple of support staff, or sometimes a second doctor with whom they partner up. One of the Frauenärzte I have tried has even set up a surgery with her husband who is also a Frauenarzt, which I only bring up because I find it fascinating that two people were drawn together romantically by a shared fascination with va-jay-jays.
This all means that trying to get an appointment with a doctor is like trying to book tickets to a West-End musical, if all the theatres only had ten seats in the entire establishment. Once they are booked up – and they are always booked up – there is nothing to do but to call all the other doctors in a 10-mile radius and see if any of them can possibly squeeze you in before they clock off at 3pm, presumably to go home and enjoy a pina colada in their jacuzzi which is tucked away in the east wing of their gorgeous mansion.
Of course, the alternative is just to go to one of their ‘open sessions’ where anyone can show up and enjoy the delights of waiting 3-4 hours to see Herr Doktor. I cannot stress how unpleasant this is when you are, for example, suffering acute gastroenteritis and have to sit in the over-warm waiting room for several hours, covered with a plasticky sheen of sweat, while your various pipes churn around inside you. But hey, don’t worry! If you just need a simple prescription you can always call up and ask for it over the phone, and then you just have to pop down and pick up the bottle of not-what-you-asked-for-drugs-which-are-illegal-in-most-of-the-world-outside-Germany.
Ok, so now you have finally managed to secure an appointment, all that is left is the daunting prospect of actually going to the doctor. This, too, is nervewracking, because people are fairly active about rating their doctor on Google. A surprising majority mostly feature reviews along the lines of: “SEHR SCHLECHTER ARZT.” One star. or, “never go here!!!!!” One star. And when you arrive you can often immediately see why: the receptionists are almost always beady-eyed, tight-ponytailed ladies who glare at you on entrance and tend to reply to your “I’m here to see the doctor please” with a brusque “Well? Who are you?” before snapping your health insurance card out of your hand like they were confiscating something naughty from a small child. It is, at any rate, never a warm welcome.
And yet there is something about the whole set-up which also makes the experience much more interesting, infinitely more curious, than going to the doctors’ in the UK. Since each doctors’ surgery is independent, it means they can set it up as they like and peddle whichever unproven health propaganda they like. Whether they’re into homeopathy (which is, incidentally, one of the most difficult words to pronounce in German) or they believe that the key to health is maintaining an ‘alkaline’ lifestyle, they will make sure you know it.
“Well yes, Frau Patientin, I will prescribe you something for the pain, but I do highly recommend that you forego the medication in favour of consuming more nuts and legumes and paying attention to your feng shui.”
Rather than the bilious-apricot walls and bland coffee tables that make up the décor of almost every UK doctors’ practice, German doctors’ waiting rooms are zany and colourful reflections of the head doctor themself: some practices are full of old brown velour couches and antique hat-stands, while others are glorious modern zeniths in the penthouse suite of a building, with sculptural benches built to look like white sand dunes, and chilled water dispensers installed into the walls. My old Frauenarzt filled her entire practice with pictures and posters of uteruses (uteri), labia, ovaries, mammary glands and the various stages of the menstrual cycle. I like to imagine that this is also how she decorates her home, perhaps even with a duvet cover with a print of the female reproductive system.
Sadly, that doctor has retired and I have yet to find another one so dedicated to the female tubes. And maybe I never will find another doctor full-stop: they seem to be all booked up for the next few decades, so my best bet is to find a doctor’s appointment scalper lurking around outside a practice in a long leather coat. Or maybe I’ll just forget about going to the doctor and die early. That would be the eco-friendly thing to do, anyway.