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swiss saturdays: drug makers, not drug takers

May 22, 2010

When I lived in the U.S., self-medicating was something I did on auto-pilot.  Headache?  2 Advils.  Sniffles that convinced me a cold was on the horizon?  2 Day-quil followed by 2 Nyquil that night.  Now when I go home the size of many U.S. over-the-counter (OTC) drug aisles amazes me.  We’re a country that doesn’t want choice, we demand it.

Shortly after moving here, I asked a colleague for a doctor referral as I wanted an annual check-up and a write-up for a sleeping aid to help through a couple upcoming, long-haul flights (they give these out like candy back home).  Seemed like a pretty simply question.   I was reluctantly given the name and number of her primary doctor with a warning:  the concept of annual check-ups doesn’t really exist in the same way.  If you want to see this doctor, he’s going to expect there’s something wrong with you.  Huh?

Necessary side-note: Insurance here is private and obligatory.  There are various levels all with their own deductibles and you choose what works for you, but in the end the cost is on you.   If your annual deductible is $1000 and your visit to the doc costs $300, you pay that full $300, no co-pays.

Paranoid, I went to the doctor and asked how to get my blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar tested.  He wondered why I wanted these done and asked if I had problems with them.  I responded “no”.  He asked what led me to believe there could be something wrong with them, I answered “nothing”.  Panicked, I realized that if he was giving me a hard time about getting tests I didn’t want done, surely he was never going to give me Ambien.  I did what no one should ever do to their doctor.  I lied.

“I’ve been suffering from sleeplessness.”  It just slipped out.  A total lie.  He asked what I thought was leading to this and I told him it was from anxiety about…you guessed it…high blood pressure, cholesterol issues and diabetes.  I’m not a good liar, I know this, but Dr. McSwissy gave me a side glance and asked me if getting results from these tests would help me.  I sheepishly answered they would.  He asked me to return early the next week and he would order each of these tests.  Score!  And then against all odds, out came the prescription notepad.  He told me until he could get the test results I would need something to help me sleep.  Yes!  Yes, I would.  He scribbled something out and told me to take it to the pharmacist.  I left and scurried along to the pharmacist feeling pretty darn good about myself.

There’s no such thing as the Target pharmacy here.  You go to a pharmacy and get your drugs (including aspirin) from someone behind a counter who will talk you about your symptoms, make sure buy the right thing and talk to you about the responsible way to take it.  Novel idea, eh?  So, I hand my slip of paper in and impatiently await my Ambien.  She comes back with a box that looks decidedly un-Ambien like.  She then begins to talk to me about the “supplement” and when and how to take it.  I’m sorry…did she just say “supplement”.  She asked for my health insurance card, runs it and happily announces “Oh, that’s great, you’re covered for holistic medicine”.  Wait?  Holistic?  What?!  No.

That’s right, kids.  Dr. McSwissy wrote me a prescription for Valerian root…glorified catnip.  Why write a prescription?  Easy, buying it OTC would make it $17.  That piece of paper made it free, which helped since all those tests I ordered (which all came back fine) came out to a whopping $360.  Yowsers.

So, here we are three years later, still living in the country where some of the largest drug companies make their drugs, but for some reason don’t push them.  We still take our share of U.S. imported OTC drugs, but somehow those boxes of Nyquil, Dayquil and Advil, stay fuller a lot longer.  And I’m still here to tell that tale.

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