Italians have never been much for Calvinist-type frugality. The Catholic hierarchy’s response to Luther’s 16th century revolt was a Counter-Reformation construction boom which aimed to woo back the faithful by dazzling them with ever more lavish churches. Rome’s Gesù is a prime example, with its dazzling colored marbles, swooping angels, and mouth-watering lapis lazuli columns. Same thing for clothes. Where my generation of American girls were taught to underdress – “look in the mirror before you go out, and remove one piece of jewelry” – Italian ragazze would toss on an extra necklace.
Public hospitals in Rome are shabby and General Practitioner offices run to the bare-bone, but in one medical niche the glitz principle holds: the vast private system. A ghostly for-profit shadow hovers alongside the National Health Service, complete with its own doctors (including me), laboratories, and hospitals. A private casa di cura or clinica will have an atrium decked out in Ficus benjamina, oil paintings, and design furniture, and rooms with disposable slippers and a comfy sleep-on couch for your spouse. A Italian patient of mine, exposed to the private system for the first time, cast his eyes around and said in wonder, “My God, this hospital’s so clean.”
Once you get past the glitter, Rome cliniche usually offer a narrow range of medical services. One may concentrate on childbirth, another on cancer, a third on cardiac catheterization, none covering all the bases and most preferring elective rather than emergency procedures – think hotels with operating suites. Here and there you’ll find a small intensive care unit, but they never have a real Emergency Room. A couple claim to cover emergencies 24/7, but the one time a patient of mine tested that boast the hospital flunked: she showed up with an asthma attack, something anyone with a medical degree should be able to handle, and was sent home without being examined much less treated because they “didn’t have the right specialist.” As the locals say with ironic intent, Tanto siamo in Italia, What can you do, we’re in Italy.
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