It was one of those stupid accidents. We’d been at a local eatery one early evening halfway through the holiday and Mrs P missed her footing on a step and fell heavily against the back rest of another diner’s wooden chair.
He was quite unharmed — in fact he just carried on eating his pizza — but Mrs P was in some pain. She had heard something crack when she landed and was fairly sure she’d broken a rib.
Being a tough, northern lady, she didn’t share her suspicions and carried on regardless, but by 3am she was in some distress. That’s when I found myself on the phone to our medical insurance company to find out what we should do.
After some to-ing and fro-ing with a Spanish call centre, we finally got a call back to say that a doctor would be arriving at our guest house by 6:30. That was the first surprise as I’d expected to have to drive her to a local hospital to be checked out.
The doctor arrived as promised, a young South African with a black bag and another small suitcase in which she carried an array of medication. She assessed the injury in our room and wasn’t sure if it was indeed broken or just muscle damage, but she gave Mrs P a mix of painkillers and muscle relaxants to be going on with.
Mrs P reacts badly to certain anti-inflammatories, but the doctor had one in mind that might do the trick and she would get them from a nearby chemist and drop them off later, but would call first to make sure she wouldn’t disturb Mrs P if she was sleeping.
She came back at lunchtime with the medication and again examined the injury, confirming that she didn’t think it was a break, but if we needed to set our minds at rest, there was a place nearby where we could get it x-rayed and we could drop in any time.
That place turned out to be the one in the photo above — the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, next to Newlands Rugby Stadium and one of the foremost centres for sports injuries.
This was borne out by the list of medical staff in reception — doctor this, professor that and each specialising in different bits of the musculoskeletal system.
We were there for no more than 20 minutes and left with the x-ray on a CD which the radiologist would review shortly. It cost around £50 less than a third of the charge for a private x-ray in the UK.
The doctor came to us again at the guest house to review the findings. It still didn’t look like a break, but neither did it look like simple muscle damage. She suspected that it might be the cartilage connecting the rib to the spine, but was able to speak directly with a specialist on the phone to confirm the diagnosis.
She prescribed further medication and rest, but we had her mobile number should we need to consult or see her again. We than had a coffee together and chatted about the U2 concert she’s been at that weekend.
So there we have it — the doctor came to us, not the other way round; she went to pharmacy to get the prescription; we could call in at a renowned centre for an x-ray whenever it was convenient; the doctor was always available by phone and; she had specialists on hand who were happy to give their opinion when she needed it.
It was a far cry from what we might have experienced in the UK where the process would have taken weeks, not days. I appreciate that we had gone private and that the South African public service would have been different, but it was the approach that was so refreshing.
To illustrate the point, Mrs P was up at 7:30 this morning to be sure of being able to make an appointment to see her GP. We drove the three miles to his surgery and then hung around a crowded waiting room as the appointment time came and went.
The GP poked and prodded and listened to his stethoscope to confirm what we already knew and all this just so Mrs P could get a supply of the anti-inflammatories.
In South Africa, the service was truly patient-centred, a buzz phrase used a lot by the government and the NHS without either seemingly able to grasp what that concept means in practice.