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Finding trust in the Danish healthcare system



Photographs: Visit Denmark / Unsplash

Text: Heather Storgaard


In the February issue, I wrote about my Danish father-in-law’s cancer and our difficulties finding a balance between caring for him and ourselves. He passed away a couple of weeks later, having enjoyed his last few weeks surrounded by family, friends and even an old flame, who came to the hospital and reminisced about their youthful adventures living abroad. Recently, as my husband and I was starting to feel a bit more like ourselves again, but still, deep in the bureaucratic tangle that comes with death, news broke that Region Midtjylland’s Aarhus Skejby Hospital had fired two directors due to breaking the patient guarantee for care and in addition to that the law. This sent me into a black hole of reading and the bleak realisation that the same department that had treated my father-in-law was affected.


Most foreigners in Denmark will learn quickly that trust is a crucial cornerstone of Danish identity. This trust allows parents to leave babies outside shops and cafes in their prams and in institutions such as the public healthcare system. I have honestly spent most of the last couple of years in disbelief that anyone can trust the Danish healthcare system to look after them and their loved ones. This isn’t a general distrust about public healthcare- my nan had the same kind of cancer as my father-in-law and was treated with much more care and attention by the British NHS (ironically, often depicted as a failing system in the Scandinavian press). Now, it turns out that the department was rotten, explaining why our experiences diverged so much from others we spoke to.


As a foreigner in Denmark, it feels challenging to criticise institutions that Danes are proud of. In a nation where fitting in and sharing values is essential, complaining or making a scene is also frowned upon. Although it’s deeply unpleasant, I have been the noisy one kicking off at times- when the hospital wouldn’t prescribe morphine, ignored their own scan results at a pre-op appointment, and wouldn’t operate within the guaranteed time period. My Danish cancer vocabulary is now better than my English one, but I was still always conscious of being The Foreigner, with an accent and a different worldview, daring to criticise Denmark. And, when we talked to other Danes about our frustrations with the care, some were openly sceptical, which didn’t help my confidence. Of course, knowing what we all do now, that has totally changed. Suddenly, it is okay to talk about poor experiences with the hospital.


"As a foreigner in Denmark, it feels challenging to criticise institutions that Danes are proud of."


But why did Skejby break the patient guarantee to start with? The short answer is budgets. Browsing Politiken, arguably Denmark’s most iconic newspaper, before sitting down to write this article, headlines screamed, “Denmark’s economy is bombproof”. The Government finds 16 million extra crowns” and “The problem in hospitals is not that they lack money….” So, with an undeniably economically solid situation and well-funded hospitals, why did Aarhus’ shiny, relatively new Skejby hospital play with patients’ lives and break the law to save a bit here and there? I doubt those of us affected will ever get a satisfactory answer. Reflecting on how it felt to attend appointments and be with my father-in-law before and after surgery, it felt like they had lost sight of recognising patients as people. And those same patients, often overwhelmed by life-changing diagnoses, trusted that the system was looking after them.


The Danish Government has announced that they will put 5 billion crowns towards strengthening the healthcare system, of which a large part will be assigned to improving cancer treatment. While this is positive news, it doesn’t bring back those who were let down by the system and aren’t here anymore. We’ll never know if my father-in-law could have lived longer had he been operated on faster, in accordance with the patient guarantee, but it is known that receiving quality care in a timely fashion is critical to fighting cancer. The entire scandal has brought back a lot of painful memories and niggles and what-ifs that will always stay with us. So, råbe højt, speak up, even if it makes you the noisy, awkward foreigner. Sticking up for the rights enshrined in Danish institutions clearly needs to be done, even if we agree to broadly trust them.

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