Some thoughts on Hungarian health care with a footnote to Viktor Orbán’s travels

As a youngster I had little to do with doctors, just dentists. On the basis of that experience I’m not at all surprised at the sorry state of most Hungarians’ teeth. I have read scores of articles in Hungarian papers recounting how bad things are. I remember one article in particular in which the author claimed that the Hungarian situation can be compared only to the Ukrainian. The amazing thing about all this is that theoretically people should make frequent visits to the dentist because medical insurance covers dental care.

In practice, the situation is pretty grim. Most people don’t go to the dentist regularly, only when they have a toothache. Then it is often too late, and out comes the tooth. The state-provided dental care doesn’t have a very good reputation, and most people who can afford it would rather pay to have their own private dentists. I understand that there are some very good dentists, especially the ones who cater to foreign patients in search of less costly treatment. But I have the feeling that one can go very wrong even here. I have an Internet friend who made the mistake of going to the “very best” dentist in a large Hungarian city, and this very best doctor did a real butcher job on her. Back in California she had to pay thousands of dollars to fix all the problems the Hungarian dentist caused.

I also know something about Hungarian dentistry from the inside. Another Internet friend was a dentist in Germany. She went to dental school in Hungary but shortly after finishing her studies she settled in Germany. She was telling me that in dental school in Hungary there is a lot of emphasis on theory and very little attention is paid to practice. As she rightly pointed out, a dentist works with his hands and thus hands-on instruction is a must. According to her–and of course she might have been biased–a large percentage of Hungarian crowns don’t fit properly. She explained to me, but now I don’t remember, the exact number of millimeters that can be between the remnant of one’s old tooth and the crown. In any case, according to her, most of the Hungarian crowns are ill-fitting. I’m pretty sure that this was the case with my cousin who one day told me that there was a problem with one of her crowns. The tooth underneath was decaying. Well, I’m no dentist, but there had to be a gap somewhere. I suggested that she change dentists but, of course, this particular dentist was the best in all of Pécs! She trusted her. This way it is not at all surprising that most Hungarians lose their teeth by the age of sixty. Another problem is that Hungarians are afraid of the dentist. I have never experienced any discomfort in a dentist chair in Canada or in the United States. On the other hand, I have nightmares even thinking about my visits to a number of dentists when I was a teenager in Hungary.

Moving on from dentistry to physicians and their patients. Starting with the patients. I was somewhat taken aback that even professional, middle class people know very little about medicine. I mean the kind of medicine we pick up from newspapers and television. There are always articles about new discoveries, new methods, new drugs, and one is bound to absorb a great deal of information this way. And of course for the last ten years or so there has been a growing body of sound medical information available on the Internet.

A couple of examples of what I mean. About ten years ago I had a conversation with a young Hungarian woman who had just finished medical school. The conversation was about breast cancer. I told her that if it is caught early, 80-90% of the time it is curable. Well, that was not what she had learned in medical school. What they taught her was that it was a deadly disease. Once a woman discovers breast cancer she is done in. She will be dead in no time. Now, if this is what they were teaching young doctors in medical school, the results are predictable.

A doctor’s mother-in-law went blind due to glaucoma. I inquired whether the old lady had regular check-ups for glaucoma. What? Glaucoma check-ups? They didn’t know about such a thing. A not too close relative of mine lost a lot of weight. The family suspected cancer. He went to be checked out. The doctors found nothing wrong. Within a month he was dead. A cousin of mine was feeling pretty awful during a theater production and decided to go straight to the emergency room of the largest hospital in the city. They didn’t want to admit her, but because her daughter-in-law worked as a doctor in the same hospital they sighed and reluctantly signed her in. Most likely they stuck her in a bed and didn’t bother further with the lady whom the doctors obviously considered to be a hypochondriac. A few hours later she suffered a heart attack and, although she was already in the hospital, they couldn’t save her. Everybody tells me that it is a great advantage if the heart attack occurs after the patient has been admitted to the hospital.

My relatives at least, even with all the doctors in the family, don’t have the foggiest idea of what we consider to be healthy living. They’d rather take pills to lower their blood pressure instead of walking half an hour or so and losing a few pounds. A relative of mine, the wife of a doctor, has occasional lower back pains. I suggested simple exercises, maybe 15 minutes a day, that can do miracles. She refuses. She’d rather take pain killers.

Maybe there will be a gradual change in attitude. I see more articles about medicine in newspapers and there are several useful Internet sites as well. The problem is that relatively few older people use the Internet. The younger people who do don’t have to worry about aches and pains at the moment.

********

Just a couple of footnotes here. The first is that one of my readers doubted the accuracy of my description of the Sarkozy-Orbán meeting in September 2007. He found a right-wing blog that claimed that the whole incident was concocted by Gábor Demszky, mayor of Budapest. Demszky allegedly made up the story in order to cover his own mistake.

Sarkozy had a very tight schedule because he spent only one day in the Hungarian capital. He allocated twenty minutes to a talk with Orbán in the parliament building. From there he was supposed to go to the Buda side in front of the College of Engineering to pay tribute in front of a statue commemorating the 1956 Revolution. Demszky and some other dignitaries from City Hall were supposed to welcome him there. However, when Sarkozy arrived Demszky and entourage were not there to greet him. Demszky claimed that they were not late, that Sarkozy was early.

So, journalists tried to find out the truth and asked Péter Szijjártó, spokesman of Fidesz, about the duration of the meeting. Why was it cut so short? Szijjártó’s answer was that “the success of a meeting doesn’t depend on its length.”  Well, to me this is pretty much of an admission. If the right-wing blog had been right, Szijjártó should have answered something like: “What do you mean? Mr. Sarkozy arrived early and spent twenty minutes with Mr. Orbán as was scheduled.” In any case, the attached picture tells the whole story, I think.

The other footnote is that Viktor Orbán just spent three days in China. Although during his first tenure as prime minister he paid absolutely no attention to China, lately he is a great admirer of the country’s economic achievement. He is planning to entice Chinese companies to settle in Hungary. He tried to endear himself to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao with whom he had a half hour meeting by mentioning that the Hungarians are also Asiatic people and are related to the Huns!

Well, that the Hungarians are not related to the Huns we all learned in high school. Maybe even in elementary school. Fine, this is certainly neither here or there as far as Prime Minister Wen is concerned. Except for one thing: the Huns, or as the Chinese called them the hiungnus, were deadly enemies of China. It was against them that the Great Wall was built. Anyone who would like to read more about the Chinese and the hiungnus should take a look at Klára Sándor’s article in Galamus. In fact, she wrote a whole series of articles on the origins of Hungarians, all very interesting.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
GW
Guest

I would be interested to know more about how, precisely, Orban nuances his interest in Chinese investment. to the best of my knowledge, China, for all its market innovations, is still led by the Communist Party. I would have expected that to be anathema to Fidesz.

Kevin Moore
Guest
You are presenting various theories as if they were accepted facts, and you assemble these theories in a way that gives you the desired result: yet another thing against Orbán. I find it quite strange that an alleged historian so clearly lacks scholarly standards when the aim of the post demands such inaccuracy. 1. The Xiongnu, the general term for nomadic tribes north of China, are far from being considered the Huns, or even their relatives. There is ongoing debate whether they were related or not, there are arguments in favor of and against the theory, but it is only a theory to which most historians don’t even pay much attention. 2. It is not true that “we learnt in high school or even elementary school that Hungarians are not related to Huns”. The truth is that in Hungary a direct relationship is the commonly accepted view, it is one of the basic elements of the curricula in history at school, and always has been. Different theories started to emerge in the 19th century that Hungarians were not really descendants of the Huns (and certainly there were many tribes mixed in), but the theory is still generally accepted in Hungary.… Read more »
Alias3T
Guest
God, Kevin, I knew you’d have a strong view on this. You remind me of the taxi drivers who will start nattering about Sumerian if you so much as let on that you’re a foreigner. On healthcare, what’s so depressing is what an antediluvian, conservative interest group the broader medical profession is. The doctor-patient relationship is like something from the 1950s, with the patient expected to show some kind of fealty to the priestly doctor. It’s actually most on display in the pharmacies, which, until recently, were another kind of sanctum, where you had to describe your symptoms, even if you knew perfectly well that you needed a cold-sore cream called Zovirax. Now, of course, the pharmacies have been liberalised (despite the cries of pharmacists that the whole country would be dead of overdoses if you could buy so much as an aspirin in a motorway service station). This has brought about enormous improvements. Competitive pharmacy chains have shortened the queues, made service quicker, introduced evening and Saturday opening. There are more of them, too, because of the abolition of rules stating that there has to be a gap of so many kilometres between each pharmacy. Everyone does well out… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Alias3T: “Now, of course, the pharmacies have been liberalised (despite the cries of pharmacists that the whole country would be dead of overdoses if you could buy so much as an aspirin in a motorway service station).”
Don’t be too happy, too soon. This government will change it back to the old system and chains will be out. The result is long lines again and higher prices.

Pete H.
Guest

Steve, again your charm shines through! Eva was using the Wade–Giles system for the Mandarin language. I think she may have misspelled the term (Hsiung-nu versus hiungnus) or perhaps it is an alternate spelling. And what are the Hsiung-nu, they are the Xiongnu.
Perhaps you need to study a little deeper before questioning the accuracy of our capable host.
So you have made another insult that requires an apology (“an alleged historian so clearly lacks scholarly standards”).

Pete H.
Guest

Woops, I meant Kevin not Steve.

Kevin Moore
Guest

Do I understand you correctly in thinking that you base your whole post on a possible typo (not on my side though), and try to invalidate my point using this typo?

Paul
Guest

He might as well be called Steve.
And note that ‘his’ usual ‘standard’ of English and rambling style have suddenly been replaced by something so well written and structured as to almost look like a Fidesz press handout.
Just my imagination, of course.

Paul
Guest
Éva – you risk opening a right can of worms here. I’ve never yet met a foreigner whose spent any time in Hungary who didn’t have at least one (but probably many) horror stories regarding Hungarian doctors, hospitals, dentists or pharmacies. I wouldn’t say they were stuck in the 1930s – I’d go at least 500 years further back than that! I pay a high price indeed for the average Hungarian’s lack of medical knowledge (or, more correctly, refusal to take note of any medical opinions this side of 1400). It is one of the main tensions in my marriage that every time someone is ill, especially the kids, the ‘tried and tested’ Hungarian old wives’ remedies are trotted out. And this despite all my attempts to explain bacteria and viruses, normal childhood illnesses, the ineffectiveness of almost all over the counter remedies, the importance (or not) of temperature (and what it actually means), the fact that kids CAN eat ice-cream when it’s cold, that we won’t all die if every meal doesn’t start with soup (and that you CAN drink water with soup!). And I could go on, and on and on… And, of course, all this is backed… Read more »
Paul
Guest
Oh, and before I forget (again), I have another request for a future post: Could you do a piece on the history of anti-Semitism in Hungary please? Both historically, and, more specifically, why it has nowadays reached almost paranoid levels (e.g. the so-called ‘International Jewish Conspiracy’)? I ask this because I was talking to a Bulgarian the other day (as you can so easily find yourself doing in the UK these days!) and we happened to get onto the subject of Gypsies (specifically the difference between ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’!). This led to the inevitable comment from me on the depressing level of unconscious racism in Hungary – at which point I mentioned my favourite mad topic, the ‘International Jewish Conspiracy’. The Bulgarian guy then said something that really stopped me in my tracks – he asked why Hungarians should be so anti-Jewish. And I realised I didn’t have the faintest idea. If my hazy memory of medieval Hungarian history is correct, Hungary actually had a very tolerant attitude to Jews until fairly recently. And, although there was the usual European-wide anti-Semitism in the 20s and 30s, the Jews were fairly well protected in WW2, until the Germans and their Arrow… Read more »
Tote Bags
Guest
Everyone does well out of this, except the old-style pharmacists, who benefited from a regulation that the majority owner of any given chemist had to be a licenced pharmacist. And guess which lobby group the government is listening to? The old-style pharmacists, who are upset at losing their state-sanctioned cartel. No surprise. They had it good. No matter how slow the service, no matter how inadequate the opening hours, they were sure to make money, because local customers had nowhere else to go. But Fidesz listened to their plaintive cries, and the one unambiguous improvement in Hungarian healthcare over the past decade is to be rolled back. I should stockpile aspirin. I wouldn’t say they were stuck in the 1930s – I’d go at least 500 years further back than that! I pay a high price indeed for the average Hungarian’s lack of medical knowledge (or, more correctly, refusal to take note of any medical opinions this side of 1400). It is one of the main tensions in my marriage that every time someone is ill, especially the kids, the ‘tried and tested’ Hungarian old wives’ remedies are trotted out. And this despite all my attempts to explain bacteria and… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “And this despite all my attempts to explain bacteria and viruses, normal childhood illnesses, the ineffectiveness of almost all over the counter remedies, the importance (or not) of temperature”
I had to laugh. My cousin, wife of a doctor, says such things. Conversation: “What’s the weather like?” “Cold.” “Be careful. Don’t get cold.” Then comes my “explanation” that one doesn’t cold from cold.

Passing Stranger
Guest

Ignorant people in many countries believe cold cause colds or don’t understand that ant-biotics don’t work against viruses. My favcurite old wives’ tales peculiar to Hungary are the following:
– children will get sore throats if they drink cold drinks
– babies must sleep outside no matter what the weather
– BUT: inside the temperature must be as hot as possible
– if you cut little boys’ hair really short, they will have stronger wavier hair later on. This is why some little Hungarian boys look like jobbik supporters. Oddly, this piece of peasant wisdom is never applied to girls.
-unicum will cure your cold. And so will pálinka.

Julie
Guest

Well, my Texan mother remains convinced that you’ll get sick if you outside with wet hair in the winter. And that drinking cod liver oil will prevent earaches.

Paul
Guest
Pálinka will apparently cure anything! Am I the only ‘honorary Hungarian’ who will admit to hating the stuff? I’m not a great drinker, so if I start the meal with a shot of neat alcohol, I daren’t drink anything else or I’m wasted. And it tastes absolutely VILE. I’ve had the ‘children will get sore throats from cold drinks/ice-cream’ thing for 5 years – nothing changes my wife’s opinion. And the ‘cold gives you cold’ madness drives me daft. What about Eskimos??? They only got colds and flu when they met us! And what causes summer colds? This year my daughter had the worst cold she’s ever had, when the average temperature was in the mid 30s! And this whole mantra about temperature is insane. A typical conversation – “Kata is very ill, she’s been sick, she’s very pale and listless and she’s coughing”, to which the reply is ALWAYS “but has she got a temperature?” No one is actually ill in Hungary unless they have a temperature! It doesn’t matter what your other symptoms are, you could be at death’s door, but if your temperature is normal it can’t be serious. Our little one often has quite high temperatures,… Read more »
Kormos
Guest

Paul:
…..and you should hate palinka even more, since O.V. legislated that Hungarians can legally brew their Moonshine. (smiley)
About taxes..I thank you all for the replies. I still wait a bit, before posting my “summary??”, since I expect some comments from fellows who reside in Hungary. They appear very silent on this issue.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “Pálinka will apparently cure anything! Am I the only ‘honorary Hungarian’ who will admit to hating the stuff?”
What about a bona fide Hungarian who thinks that it is vile? One of the most embarrassing moments of my life occurred on an Air France plane from Paris to New York. Stupid me. I said yes to delivering a bottle (glass!) of the stuff to somebody’s relatives in New Jersey. I had too much stuff for my suitcases and a friend of mine who lived in Paris offered me an old doctor’s bag that was in pretty bad shape. I carried the stupid bag and in the middle of the aisle the handle broke. A few minutes later the whole plane smelled like…. well, I don’t have to describe it. You know what I mean.

Anna
Guest
Attn Paul: Well, not everything is bad in traditional Hungarian diet. Eating soup before meals is definetely healthier than having hamburger and fries for lunch. Chicken soup has well known remedies. Mayo Clinic: “Chicken soup: Can it cure a cold? By Mayo Clinic staff There’s no cure for the common cold. But if you’re sick, chicken soup may help you feel better. Researchers say that chicken soup acts as an anti-inflammatory by slowing the movement of certain immune system cells. Plus, chicken soup temporarily speeds up the movement of mucus through the nose. This relieves congestion and limits the amount of time viruses are in contact with the lining of your nose. The broth also helps prevent dehydration.” I live in the US and I am not familiar with the UK habits. I think that kids of people who came from Hungary are eating much more fruits and vegetables than American children. If I give cherries , grapes , apples, oranges, strawberries to a group of children here, only my kids are eating them. The rest of the children are feeding on pizza and coke. They don’t touch the salads either or the carrot and celery plates. Organic fruits and… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Anna, I spend my life ‘bridging the cultural gap’. This mostly means doing it the Hungarian way!
A longer (and more sensible) reply later, right now I have a son to change, a daughter to pick up from school, AND some tiling to do!

Guest

There are some real medical problems with the older generation in Hungary – I’m really luck that my wife is an exception here.
Most of my neighbours in my age (I’m 67) still eat as if they were toiling the land – lots of fatty meat and extra zsír and vegetables cooked to death, no fresh fruit etc …
My wife and I often tell that old joke about what defines a real Hungarian:
It’s easier to jump over him than to walk around him …
I could go on about the illnesses that are caused by this – many of my neighbours have diabetes, high blood pressure is the norm …
On the other hand I have only good things to say about Hungrian doctors, dentists and hospitals – but obviously Héviz is different from the rest of the country …
I’m so happy that I chose to buy that little house here, and not only because I found my marvelous wife this way …

Paul
Guest
Anna – at last I have more time to reply. I wrote my 10:08 post in a rush, so it probably didn’t come across too well. So apologies if any of it annoyed you. But, as for chicken soup, I was ranting about soup in general, not just chicken, and particularly my wife’s belief that EVERY meal must start with soup. As a veggie, I don’t eat chicken soup, but I still get soup every day. As it happens, my wife’s soups are excellent, so this isn’t too much of a burden. But, as an English person, used to soup as only a very occasional addition to a meal, I find it a bit much to be faced with a large bowl of liquid before EVERY meal! As for chicken soup’s medicinal properties, it may very well have some, but I suspect they are very minor, and probably mostly the result of it being soup, rather than specifically chicken. We have a government campaign here in the UK to get kids to eat more fruit and veg. School meals are planned to include more fruit and veg than they used to, and to limit things like chips and pizza. At… Read more »
Paul
Guest

On a lighter note, the Hungarian propensity for eating sweet things for the main course (and generally putting sugar in everything!) really confuses the average Brit.
I’ve got used to fruit soup, in fact I like it very much (although I still prefer it cold), and I also very much like diós tészta and silvás gombóc. But, even after nearly 10 years, all three still seem like afters/desserts to me.
Several times my mother-in-law has served up a lunch of fruit soup, followed by diós tészta, with gombóc as ‘desszert’, and, much as I have enjoyed the meal, I am still left feeling like I’ve somehow missed out on the main course, and accidentally had three ‘afters’ instead!

Paul
Guest

Sorry to hog this blog, but, getting back on topic – Hungarian healthcare and diet.
My extended Hungarian family includes two heart surgeons, one of whom is in his 30s and just beginning to become Magyar ferfi shaped, and the other is close to retirement and has achieved the MF shape to perfection. Both eat a normal Hungarian diet – with relish (in both senses of the word!).
I’ve long wondered how a heart specialist can apparently not see the connection between his excessive number of patients and their diet, but I was even more baffled by what happened a few years ago.
The elder heart surgeon had a serious heart attack, and underwent bypass sugary. On hearing this, I commented that perhaps now he would see how dangerous the Hungarian diet is.
To which I, of course, received the classic Hungarian explanation that the excessive fat, salt and sugar in the Hungarian diet was quite healthy (“proper man’s food”), and it was actually stress that caused heart problems.
None so blind (or dead) as those who will not see.

latefor
Guest

Oh, come on, Paul….frankly, I have never read an internationally famous English cook book…or apart from Shepard’s pie, I do not know many memorable English dishes. I call it “memorable” because once you eat it, you will always remember NOT to order it again….ha…ha…ha.
As far as Hungarian cuisine is concerned if one is careful with fat and salt, it is delicious and looks beautiful on the plate(especially if you not serving pork/lamb shanks…)and not to mention the skill needed to prepare Hungarian dishes! It is NOT a 2 minutes job!

latefor
Guest

I can not believe this…are we discussing who makes the best gulash in here? Ha…ha..ha
Back to the discussion re: healthy cooking, I do think Hungarian food can be prepared in a very healthy way. It depends on the cook.
So many vegetable dishes, salads etc. etc.
I am a great fan of Thai food but could not live without my Hungarian dishes. I guess it is in my genes..and one has to accept that.

Alias3T
Guest

Hungarian food is good if well prepared.
On the pharmacies, we now have a more detailed picture of the government’s planned legislation.
http://hirszerzo.hu/belfold/20101103_patika_kamara
Pharmacies will have to be majority-owned by a licenced pharmacist; chains will have to sell up their individual pharmacies to a licenced individual or close their doors.
And the pharmacists’ lobby, which is delighted, wants the government to provide Ft20bn in loans to pharmacists so they can buy out all those chains. That would be a pretty good deal for them. Bad for everybody else.

Kevin Moore
Guest

Yeah, sure. “Bad for everybody else.’
Strange way of acknowledging an action that clearly favors small Hungarian enterprises over multi-national companies.

Passing Stranger
Guest

I wonder whether such protectionism is legal. Even if it favours Hungarian businesses, it does not favour Hungarian customers.

Gábor
Guest

Kevin, please, set aside your mantra from the actual agit-prop brochure just for one second and try to be honest with yourself.
Why do you think the Fidesz should favor individual pharmacist over Harmatha Levente from Pécs, owning nine units as a family business? Why do you think Harmatha Levente is a multinational company? Just because he thinks the move is unwise and discriminates him, who was able to develop a small chain of pharamcies? How would you reconcile Harmatha’s forced sell out with Fidesz’s claim they give preference to people who work and produce more?
http://nol.hu/lap/gazdasag/20101104-tulajdonoscsere_ezer_patikaban
Morever, the whole story too much resemble dark periods of Hungarian history…

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul:”To which I, of course, received the classic Hungarian explanation that the excessive fat, salt and sugar in the Hungarian diet was quite healthy (“proper man’s food”), and it was actually stress that caused heart problems. None so blind (or dead) as those who will not see.”
There is a tendency to put all the blame on stress and hardly mention smoking, lack of exercise, being overweight, or diet.

wpDiscuz