Thanks for Kicking Me Off the Newspaper

Thus far, has your study abroad experience influenced your academic and professional goals? If so, how?

Your views on life can change only when something challenges them, throws them into sharp relief that exposes their true nature. For me, coming to Denmark was like realizing that a rolled up newspaper is not flat, but in fact three-dimensional. Throughout my high school and college experience, I had viewed going through the pre-medical path as a straight-line trajectory designed to give me the information I would need to eventually treat sick people. As if I was walking on the surface of this rolled-up newspaper, I continued straight ahead, convinced that I was moving forward by reading only what was on the surface. My experiences in Denmark have literally kicked me off this limited viewing platform and shown me that I have much more freedom in my chosen path than I knew. Walking on that straight-line path wasn’t teaching me anything about myself, and in the end I would have ended up right where I began. Seeing the Danes’ view on healthcare and life in general has introduced me to the value in taking my time – fully appreciating and, most importantly, questioning what I’m doing.

Learning about Scandinavian healthcare systems in the core course of my program introduced me to the merits of socialized healthcare. The goal of the Danish, Swedish, Estonian (they use Denmark as a model!), and to a large extent most European healthcare systems is to provide equal access to quality care for all of the country’s residents. Issues with illegal immigrants aside, they all do a fairly good job of this. Doing so allows them to drastically reduce their healthcare costs by focusing on preventative care coordinated through general practitioners. Partially because of their small size, but more so because everyone literally buys into the system (through taxes), they are able to minimize cost for procedures & medicines, and they can provide people with enough choice that hospitals & practitioners still remain on the cutting edge.

Interestingly, Denmark and the U.S. spend about the same amount of money on public healthcare, but the U.S. drastically outspends every country in the world on private healthcare options. But does this really lead to better outcomes? The common opinion in Denmark (and Scandinavia as a whole) is no. The U.S. may provide outstanding medical care to the few who can afford expensive surgeries or arduous therapies, but the millions of Americans still uninsured (and even those who are insured) seldom see this quality of treatment. People also wait to seek medical care until their condition worsens, which significantly increases the cost of their treatment. In contrast, EVERY LEGAL RESIDENT OF DENMARK IS INSURED, and receives affordable and (relatively) fast healthcare when they need it. Seeing the differences between the U.S. and Scandinavian healthcare systems so starkly contrasted prompted me to doubt my previous assumption that America provided the best healthcare in the world.

On top of this, the Danish approach to society attacked my American love of the individual. Sure, we can be patriotic and champion both freedom and individual rights, but are the Americans who are saddled with exorbitant medical bills, college tuition payments, and taxes really free? In paying 30-60% (depending on their income) of their earnings in taxes, the Danes in effect pay their way out of worrying about not only their healthcare, but also their education, infrastructure, government, and even unemployment/disability (as the government sets up rather secure and broad safety nets for any residents who “fall off the boat”). By having a socialized system, depending on each other, it seems to me like the Danes actually earn more personal freedom than many Americans ever get to enjoy.

The Danish approach to medical education also threw a sharp left-hook at my preconceived notions of my path to being a doctor. One night, my host parents had invited over a couple who happened to be medical students. However, when I saw them, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only did they look normal, they actually looked great! No dark bags remnant of long sleepless nights sagged under their eyes, they looked fit as if they had time to work out, and what’s more they had a kid! So astonished was I that I didn’t actually talk to them until after we had finished eating. When I finally did, I told them about my aspiration to be a general practitioner in the U.S.; they, in turn, shared their experiences of the Danish medical system with me. The Danish government pays them to go to medical school, and they even received extra money when they had their son. They work about 45 hours a week (and officially only 37 hours a week), and have ample vacation time. They each even took an entire year off to care for their infant son, and now are both close to finishing their degrees and entering internships. How different was this from the stories I’d heard of the daily, sleepless struggle that defines medical school in the U.S!

Along with a general Danish attitude of “being at peace with oneself,” this couples’ experiences convinced me that I didn’t have to continue running blindly along the pre-set medical student path in the U.S. Who ever told me that I had to go directly to medical school upon graduation? Why couldn’t I get into a great school, even with good-but-not-great grades? Although it’s slowly changing, the mentality in the U.S. towards medical school is part of why so many doctors burn out, why I thought this couple would be haggard and “hate their lives.” From them, I learned that, even if it isn’t completely normal, I could take my time in becoming a doctor. If it means that I’ll end up being more “at peace” with myself, and as a result better able to treat my patients, then I think it’s well worth it.

Denmark has taught me to “chill out.” I know that medical school in the U.S. will be a much more rigorous ordeal than in Denmark, but worrying about it will only make it worse. In taking my time with the progression through the medical system, I can critically question each step and, hopefully, try to improve parts that need revision.

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Filed under Nathaniel in Denmark, Western Europe

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