Western Clinics Promise A False Sense of Security

What number do you ring when your baby splits his head open, scalds himself with a hot saucepan or swallows a bottle of bleach? It's one of those recurring nightmares nestling in the back of all our minds that we argue away with the rationale that we've signed up, at enormous cost, with one or another of the handful of Moscow-based Western medical centers and anyway, statistically, it won't happen to us.

But it does happen. Our neighbor, for example, broke his ankle and was treated by a retired ear, nose and throat specialist who failed to make the proper diagnosis. When his foot went black, our friend sought a second opinion. He saw a Russian specialist who instantly diagnosed the life-threatening risk of clotting 24 hours before he might have died.

When he confronted the Western clinic responsible for the misdiagnosis and asked why he had not initially seen a competent specialist, the spokeswoman responded, "Most of our clients would rather die than see a Russian doctor."

Frankly, I think most of us would rather see a Russian doctor -- many of whom are excellent -- than die.

Our neighbor is a grown man and is now one of at least four people suing the clinic involved. But the same thing applies to children. When a small expat boy cracked his skull after being thrown from a sled last winter, not only did the same clinic send a drunk ambulance driver who demanded a $1,000 deposit but, explaining it was a Saturday, claimed the clinic was unable to produce a doctor of any kind, let alone a specialist to treat a possible brain injury. Only the family membership in a private security firm, Eagle Bear, which was able to track down a physician, saved the child.

Expatriate Juliette Butler has already described in the pages of The Moscow Times how her Western clinic sent her on a nerve-racking, do-it-yourself tour of Russian hospitals rather than take charge when she described her baby's frightening symptoms over the phone.

The point is that, through their advertising, these "Western" clinics give the impression that signing up with them makes you safe -- just like dialing 999 in Britain or 911 in the States.

But this isn't true. They can't guarantee performance here, and even though we've all paid dearly for our evacuation policies, in a real emergency, there may not be time to get on a plane.

Granted, they may be doing the best they can in the circumstances -- a GAIshnik would rather clear the traffic for a government limo than an ambulance, for example -- and we wouldn't be without them. But horror stories abound, and not even a fistful of policies can make this as safe as living in the West, so it is dishonest to lull us into a false sense of security.