July 21, 2009

Will Danes Adopt Preventive Health Care?

After the American Century

My vacation is drawing to a close and you can expect more postings here at After the American Century. In Denmark at this time of year there is little news, as most of the country has gone on vacation, including most of the politicians. Life seems a bit more pleasant without them showing up on the evening news.

However, there was one worthy idea, hardly new, in the news today, namely that all citizens ought to receive twice a year health check-ups. This was standard in the United States by the 1970s, and when I arrived in Denmark in 1982 and was assigned to a doctor, I immediately went by his office to get acquainted. I assumed there would be a physical examination, to establish a baseline for my future care. The nurse and receptionist were cordial but bemused. Regular physical exams were not part of the procedure, and amazingly, they still are not. In other words, while Danes have a free (tax supported) health system, it does not focus on prevention, only cure.

By now the health system has a pretty full record on me, or anyone else who has been treated for various ailments. Yet this record is a bit haphazard. Measurements of weight, blood pressure, and the like are not taken in a systematic manner, and there is no baseline to measure progress or deterioration.

Unfortunately, this "new idea" has been launched at a time when no one is paying attention, because the country is vacationing. But regular examinations is essential to a preventive health program, the goal being to keep citizens healthy rather than wait for them to fall ill. And while it might look expensive, studies show that preventive health programs save money, because problems or worrying developments are caught sooner.

Readers outside Denmark will probably be amazed that the health system has not yet grasped this basic idea. But for those who know a bit about it, this is not surprising, as Danes generally are not quick to learn from outsiders. I know many foreign-born permanent residents who have said for years that preventive medicine ought to be the national policy. But it is hard for outsiders to get a hearing. This, however, is a story for another day.