Health Care in Germany: One Observation (Maybe Two)

I’m not an expert on the German health care system, but as we move toward nationalized health care in the U.S., I can’t help but think back to something I witnessed in Berlin, when I was there for a conference in 2004. I was walking from the conference venue to my hotel when I was passed by an ambulance, and a few blocks later I saw it had stopped in front of a restaurant with a large window in front. I could see in the window that there was a man lying on the floor of the restaurant, and paramedics were pumping on his chest. When they pushed on his chest his body would move in response. When they quit, the man lay perfectly still. I stood on the sidewalk (although discreetly on the other side of the street) and watched this for 10 or 15 minutes. I was curious about what the paramedics might do next, but uncertain about how much longer this might go on I continued on back to my hotel. That’s what I saw.

My interpretation of what I saw is that the man had a heart attack in the restaurant and the paramedics were trying to resuscitate him. If the man was unable to regain consciousness in the restaurant, the paramedics were not going to put him in the ambulance and take him to a hospital. With nationalized health care, that’s one way to save money. In the U.S., this man would have immediately been put in the ambulance and the paramedics would have tried to resuscitate him on the way to the hospital, and his chances of survival would have been greater. Surely, given the amount of time I watched these paramedics in action, and considering that it took some time for them to arrive at the restaurant, by the time I left the man on the floor was dead.

My concern is that we are heading for that type of health care system in the U.S. That’s my one observation of the German health care system at work.

Here’s a second, very indirect, observation. The year before my trip, in 2003, my colleague Bill Serow went to Germany to give some lectures, and while there died of a heart attack. He was 57. I’ve often wondered if what I saw in Berlin bore any resemblance to Bill’s heart attack, and that if Bill’s heart attack had happened in the U.S. he might have survived it.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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