Dubious Health

The curiosities of the Austrian health care system raise vital questions

The World Health Organization regards the Austrian health care system as one of the best in the world according to its 2006 annual report.

So how come it is possible that a woman with a slipped disk is released from the hospital within 48 hours, with no referral to rehab – when her husband, with different insurance and no current injuries, is given one?

Austrian bureaucracy can at times take things to an absurd level. Brigitte Nachtigall (an alias used to withhold her desire to remain anonymous) experienced a small twitch in her back several months ago. She thought nothing of it, and continued working in the household the rest of the day. As the night passed, the pain became so unbearable that her husband, Hans, called the family doctor and tried an injection to reduce the pain. That didn’t work, and a day later, she couldn’t feel her leg any longer.

At the hospital, she underwent immediate surgery to avoid losing the leg due to numbness caused by a pinched-nerve. All went well. Following the operation she should have begun rehabilitation, and continue her daily life.

Easier said than done. With national health insurance now trying to cut costs, it appears they are also cutting down on common sense. Nachtigall was denied therapy not once but twice, without being seen by the doctor in charge.

Astonished, she phoned the doctor. The conversation unfolded as follows:

“Why didn’t you approve my request for rehabilitation,” she inquired?

“You didn’t check the right box at the bottom of the form applying for rehab but the one for ‘spa treatment,’” answered the grumpy doctor.

However, Nachtigall had made a copy of her application before sending it off, thinking that it’d be wise to have a copy. This provided necessary evidence – it was clear as day: she had checked the right box. The doctor had blacked out the ticked box, because it is cheaper to send someone on ‘spa treatment’ than outpatient rehab. But this was not what Nachtigall needed.

When she suggested an appointment, the doctor demurred. “I certainly do not want to meet you at all,” the doctor answered, now sounding annoyed.

What made the situation all the more absurd was when her husband Hans, who was healthy, was prescribed a stay at a rehabilitation center on the strength of old diagnoses. He would, of course, be able to bring his wife, who was thus able to go to the clinic as the spouse of her uninjured husband.

How can this be possible?  More curious and more curious…

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