How the Portuguese and Irish Healthcare Systems Saved a Life Together

Based on the 2021 World Population’s Review of healthcare systems across the globe, Portugal ranks number 12 and Ireland, number 19.

Having access to healthcare is certainly a fundamental human right, however, access to it (as in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of illness, injury, disease, and other physical or mental impairments) varies wildly across countries, and even between municipalities within them. 

According to the World Health Organization, a well-functioning healthcare system requires a steady financing mechanism, a properly-trained and adequately-paid workforce, well-maintained facilities, and access to reliable information to base decisions on, but looking more deeply, how is the quality of healthcare determined? 

Factors related to the care process, access, affordability, efficiency, and population health and mortality drive the ranking process, something that might surprise you when looking at the national health systems in Ireland and Portugal. The thing you might not know, is that there is a wonderful relationship between the two that can be used to a patient’s advantage when that patient hails from the EU.

Based on the 2021 World Population’s Review of healthcare systems across the globe, Portugal ranks number 12 and Ireland, number 19. This might surprise you if you have been waiting for a non-urgent procedure, as it’s almost certain that wait has been a long one. That said, if there is an urgent situation that arises, you can rest assured that the matter will be dealt with at top speed in both countries. 

Carolyn McKeown, IPBN board member and Founder of Shebang Events and PR Management has intimate knowledge of both systems, both on the public and private side. She told the IPBN "In Ireland, going private isn't the easiest, as you still have to be referred by a General Practitioner in the public system. With COVID, for example, you can't even get in to see a GP — It's now mostly done over the phone, so unless you have a health issue that is deemed extremely urgent, you might be waiting a while. The Irish national healthcare system, however, is excellent, in my opinion. The quality for me was phenomenal, but of course, that can depend on a variety of factors."

In April 2019, McKeown went to her private healthcare provider in Portugal complaining of stomach pains. The doctor did an endoscopy two days later and diagnosed her with Crone's disease and put her on medication. The doctor recommended that she have an MRI just to be safe, and McKeown complied saying, "He gave me the choice. I did it at the end of May and got the results on the 5th of June." Through the MRI, they found a tumor growing on her ovaries— a tumor that was growing at an alarming pace — and McKeown was booked in to see a gynecologist the very next day. The only option was for her to have invasive surgery to replace part of her pelvis with fiberglass that risked, in the worst case, permanent paralysis or worse if not done right. 

As Mckeown was traveling back and forth between Ireland and Portugal at the time, the doctor in Portugal asked her where she would feel more comfortable having the surgery and the following recommended time of six weeks’ recovery. McKeown explained, "I live and work between both countries, and I don't want to give up the NHS for my pension, so I pay into both systems. With my EU citizen card, I can go to the public system in Portugal, pay, and be reimbursed by the NHS." Since Mckeown has family in Ireland, she elected to do the surgery there. Her procedure took 12 hours and demanded the presence of six of her doctors from the Irish national system, all gathered in with very short notice. In a matter of weeks, her surgery was scheduled, completed, and her recovery began.

Three weeks after the surgery, Mckeown was back in Portugal where she received all recovery follow-ups including radiation treatment within the Portuguese system. "The only downside to the Portuguese system working with the NHS is that prescriptions are only subsidized if you are a resident," McKeown said. "For me, both systems are amazing. I would have been dead without them because the tumor would have popped and killed me if the doctor hadn't recommended an MRI scan. The beauty of the Portuguese system specifically, is that you can have an MRI scan whenever you want. For just 300 - 450€, you can get some peace of mind." McKeown continued, "You can't put a price on your life," but in our humble opinion, that price tag is incredibly affordable — especially when an MRI scan in the United States would cost anywhere from 2 - 3K without insurance.

Her story shows the merits of both Irish and Portuguese healthcare and how they worked together to keep her going. McKeown says. "The overall experience was flawless. It was sleek, very efficient, and ultimately saved my life, to which I will be forever grateful both the PT healthcare and NHS healthcare for their speed and expertise."