Daniel Brooks

Medical care is provided to all permanent residents and citizens in Russia, free of charge. The treatment can take its sweet time and involve procedures that are sometimes excessive but are eventually effective. The care is basic and without frills, but it gets the job done. 

Two years ago, I had minor surgery done in Moscow. It went well and didn’t cost me a dime. The price in the US would have been in the range of $10,000. Beforehand, I had to go through about a dozen examinations. Each one produced a document that I accumulated in a pile. Once I had them all, I could sign up for surgery. One doctor tried to sell me a kilogram of roasted coffee, after examining an x-ray of my lungs. He had coffee samples in his closet. I was wondering if I would have to take an intelligence test. Perhaps the offer to buy the coffee was provided instead.  

Lately the clinic where I am registered has improved. As recently as 2018, seeing a GP or other specialist meant standing around in a dank corridor and trying to outmaneuver the other Russians to defend one’s place in line. Pensioners were rampant, decreasing the odds of success. Getting in the way of a Russian retiree in need of prescription drugs is no small matter. Often, someone would cut the line for reasons known only to medical science. Nowadays, this practice is no more. My clinic has been painted and ventilation has been improved. The place has air. Making an appointment involves entering proof of insurance into a machine. My insurance ID is shaped like credit card with a bar code and my picture on it. An appointment is set up on a given day and time. Chit in hand, the next step is to see the physician who can be counted on to see patients more or less on schedule. The amount of time jostling with pensioners in line has almost disappeared. An exception was a flu shot I recently had. I didn’t have to register. Instead, I was sent down a corridor and pulled into a room by a nurse who wordlessly jabbed me in my shoulder. I haven’t had the flu since. 

Until a few years ago, I used private clinics more often than not. Some expats will remember when the American Medical Center first opened in the early 90’s, offering doctors and specialists from the U.S. It was followed by the European Medical Center, with specialists from Europe. By the early 2000’s, the foreign doctors were replaced at these clinics by Russians. UPDK, a Russian service provider in Moscow, set up a treatment center that remains active today, providing high quality care. Over the years, other private clinics have come into existence. One features décor reminiscent of 1905, ornate and vaguely Italianate. We used it for several years, combined with the free health clinic. Once, I had a sore shoulder and tried both the free and private options. I ended up meeting the same doctor in both. It dawned on me that free care and private clinics have similar equipment and doctors with the same training, the difference being the level of comfort in the waiting areas and interior décor. 

If someone needs extensive care, the private facilities refer patients to public hospitals who provide surgery, for a fee. Once, in 1994, I managed to dislocate my shoulder. The doctor at the American Medical Center was unable to pull my shoulder back into position, being a puny weakling. I was sent to a hospital used by the military to be taken care of. I was given anesthetics and my shoulder was put to rights while I was unconscious. After I woke up, I was given a bed in a room all to myself and told to stay there for a week. The other rooms in my wing had two or more men in them. I noticed several patients shuffling around in the corridor, wearing bathrobes with few outward signs of having anything wrong with them. One of them was in hospital for two weeks with a sore back. He hadn’t had any surgery and was without pain. He whiled away the hours reading and eating free food. I think he made several new friends with whom he spent time, smoking in the hallway. Breakfast was oatmeal. I couldn’t have any until I provided my own bowl and spoon, which I didn’t have. I was also without a cup and was not given tea. I was told to stay in hospital for a week, but I refused due to the need for breakfast. I was finally allowed to leave but wasn’t able to keep my sling, holding my sore arm in place. I made one, using my belt and resolved to stay away from surgery in Russia from then on.

High quality medical specialists can be found these days in every field, in Moscow. Most have decent doctors, high quality equipment and the latest technology. The same is true for dentists. How things stand in the regions, I don’t know. Moscow is like a city state, a part of Russia that stands apart from much of the rest of the country. Tracking down a specialist in Moscow can involve making phone calls to friends and asking if someone can make a referral. Most people know someone. Otherwise, most specialists have web pages with appraisals from their patients. Some reviews are good, others are bad, indicating they are more or less authentic. Avoiding surgery is no longer a necessity, although I haven’t changed my philosophy about it yet. 

Many physicians attempt to provide care that doesn’t work. I once visited a clinic to get some ointment for a minor rash. I was given a hard sell to sign up for a program lasting twelve months, designed to improve my immunity. It was hogwash. Russia is inundated with inexpensive medicines that aren’t medicinal. Many are healed by them, a testimony to the power of thinking positively.

No discussion about medical care in Russia would be complete without mentioning the new vaccine. Perhaps Sputnik 2 will save the day. Some aren’t sure, although the President’s daughter has taken it, as have a number of medical professionals. Presumably it was administered voluntary. Recently, I met a diplomat in Moscow whose small Asian country was given 1000 Sputnik-2 vaccines by the Russian government, for free. He told me that specialists from his country had seen research showing the Russian vaccine is safe and effective. He was convinced by the data. His people will get the Russian vaccine soon. I’ll be keeping in touch with the diplomat to find out if it goes well. If it doesn’t, I might have to settle for a placebo. 

Daniel Brooks, 15 December 2020, copyright

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