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The common cold is an ailment Germans give serious attention toImage: BilderBox

A Passion for Prescriptions

Tamsin Walker
November 11, 2004

As the last autumn leaves flutter to the ground dragging Germany headlong into winter, patients across the country are preparing for their annual love affair with the doctors' waiting room.


Call it a passion, an obsession or merely a healthy interest, there is no getting away from the fact that Germans nurture a very loving relationship with their physical wellbeing. And at no time of year does this become more apparent than when the nights begin to draw in and the skies to cloud over.

"Germans definitely go to the doctors too often," General Practitioner Dr. Beate Effertz, told DW-WORLD. "At least 70 percent of people who visit the doctor in Germany could stay at home. That's not to say that they don't have a problem, they do, but what they really need is to talk, and because they don't do that, they develop symptoms which lead them to the doctor," she added.

And the very design of the system acts like a magnet on those troubled souls who feel the need to keep returning to their GP in search of a wonder cure. "It is legitimate to go to the doctor, people would rather go there than to a psychologist or a priest," Dr. Effertz said.

Cultural sickness

But that's only part of the picture, as many visits to the doctor at this time of year are the product of a national culture of acquiring petit illness. From the earliest age, children in Germany are taught that sickness ensues from such daring acts as venturing outside with wet hair, failing to wear slippers in the home, or walking the winter streets baring any naked flesh besides hands and face.

Dr. Effertz believes that people often fall into the trap of becoming sick simply because they believe they have violated the code of German winter dressing, adding that there is no real basis for such illness, and that the body can be trained to deal with all kinds of climatic conditions given half the chance.

Competition rules

But even doctors who are unwilling to prescribe medication for the sake of it, are at the mercy of a system rooted in competition. GPs are paid on a per-patient basis, so ultimately the more sickness they deal with, the healthier their businesses stand to become.

General Practitioner Dr. Stefan Linnig says doctors know their own vulnerability and even when dealing with sicknesses such as the common cold, which essentially just has to run its course, they are obliged to take it seriously.

"As a doctor, you can't tell them to pull themselves together, you have to keep their spirits up, or run the risk of them choosing a different doctor," Dr Linng said.

Farewell to the good times

For a long time, the luxury German healthcare system not only cured illness, but also fed it. Doctors had their patients and patients had their doctors, but together they were gradually bleeding the state health insurance companies dry. At the start of this year, in a bid to heal the ailing coffers, the government introduced a mandatory €10 ($12.9) quarterly fee -- to be paid on top of health insurance contributions -- for those wishing to visit the doctor.

Amidst cries that such a fee would take its toll on low earners, and lead to more sickness overall, the new system met with rigid resistance from both doctors' and patients' camps alike.

But nine months down the line, there have been no epidemics and there is even a feeling among some doctors that the fee has been a good thing. "There is now an obvious hurdle for people to go to the doctor, they observe their symptoms more closely and wait to see if they go away before seeking medical help," Dr. Linnig told DW-WORLD.

The new fee could be the first step to a cure.Image: dpa
Tempo Taschentücher
Single packs of tissues are a firm favorite in GermanyImage: Tempo
Hausschuhe von Radost Bokel
Slippers are a German winter must.Image: dpa
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