Life in Denmark as a Chronic Pain Patient
by Erik Hamre
As chronic patients, we see sides of society that others don’t. We get to become intimate with the quirks of the healthcare system, we learn to make money stretch as far as it has to. Sometimes, maybe often, we get frustrated with red tape and less than understanding doctors, neighbors and friends. We’re left to wonder: Is this the best our society has to offer? They say the grass is always greener on the other side, but does that really hold up?
I’m a danish citizen living in Denmark and in this guest post, I’d like to share with you what life as a chronic pain patient is like here. You tell me then, if the grass is actually greener or if you have it pretty good already.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is essential
Some of my American friends are really excited about a Democratic presidential candidate from California, Mr. Andrew Yang. He has made waves by his desire to implement Universal Basic Income (UBI). Socialist? Crazy? Best idea ever? I tell my American friends that we already have a UBI of sorts in Denmark. Let me explain.
These last three years, I’ve been receiving $1,500/month in economic assistance from the government. A net sum aptly named “kontanthjælp,” which literally translates to “cash help.” This “cash help” is available to all Danes who, for whatever reason, do not have a means of providing for themselves. There are strings attached though, courses to attend, unpaid work one must do, and the like. That said, people who are sick are generally exempt.
The Danish Constitution has a paragraph declaring that the state has a responsibility to provide for those unable to provide for themselves. This paragraph has held many different meanings throughout the years, from poorhouses to the current installment. The current “kontanthjælp” is a guaranteed sum of money (with contractual obligations) to be paid every month. It’s a literal lifesaver.
For those gainfully employed in Denmark, a better option than kontanthjælp is government-subsidized unemployment insurance. You pay around $150 every month towards premiums, and in return, you get insured for up to 2 years of unemployment (or sick leave). Payments during this time are up to $3,000 a month. This part-private, part-public system of unemployment is rather unique and has allowed for a very flexible job market. No one has to fear losing their home if they lose their job—at least not for 2 years.
Through my struggle with illness and chronic pain, I consider myself lucky to live in a country where I can always count on this monthly payment. I cannot imagine the horror of having to deal with a debilitating chronic illness without this safeguard.
When the healthcare system passes the buck
Danish healthcare is a “socialized” system, where everyone pays into the system through taxes and treatment is provided free of cost. Everyone is guaranteed treatment at the same hospitals, regardless of their economic situation. While it’s absolutely a great thing, there’s always a flip side to the same coin.
On that other side, the system creates bureaucracy and confusion with long waits to see specialists.
For example, when I began having pain in my neck and back, I was simultaneously sent to a neurological and rheumatology department. These two departments were at two different hospitals, and each appointment came with more than a month long wait. After the first appointment, I was rescheduled for tests like an MR scan, which also had over a month-long wait time. When the results were in—yep, you guessed it—one more to wait for the actual doctor.
Simple introductory diagnostics may take several months while doctors at one hospital wait for results from another. This is probably my biggest complaint as a chronic pain patient in Denmark. The health care system is just not set up to handle people with complex illness. If you have something clearly defined, such as cancer, the system is quick and efficient. If you have something complicated, well, be prepared for months and years of frustration.
Losing identity and respect in a working culture
If I know one thing about Americans, it’s that you work a lot, right? Most Danes turn pale when they hear how little vacation time you Americans have. We’re all about work-life balance over here–emphasis on work.
Denmark is a country which places a great deal of importance on work. While we’re not at the level of the German or Japanese, we do value work very highly. Work carries its own reward here. Some claim it’s because of that mythical “protestant work ethic.” Maybe it’s a remnant of “early to bed, early to rise” farmer culture. Until recently, we used to be a primarily agricultural country.
Work is the center of Danish life. Socializing as an adult is frequently done through work, and people generally place a great deal of identity in their job description.
This also means that you feel quite left out without a job here. This isn’t the Mediterranean or even France, where you find people lounging about casually at all times. No, you get up, go to work, and socialize on the weekends. Denmark doesn’t have strong local communities either, no churches with large congregations. You join a social club according to your hobbies and interests here. Danish socializing is very activity based, which is of course a problem when pain and injury holds you back.
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I hope you enjoyed reading my experience of living with chronic pain in Denmark. I’m often jealous of Americans and your elite health care system, but on the other hand, I couldn’t live with as much uncertainty as some Americans do. What do you think? Do you think you have it better or worse as a chronic pain patient?
About the author:
Eric is a danish writer and editor with a chronic pain condition. He has written for several danish newspapers and is currently contributing to a danish magazine, Sove.nu, on how to sleep better with chronic pain.