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Healthcare: another thing that the Germans just do better

Germany has rejected restrictions on doctors visits.

Photograph: Getty Images

Recent Conservative ideas to restrict the number of GP visits in a year may be discounted as too controversial. But with the concept of universalism in health and welfare under threat we should not be so complacent. This is another area where we should follow the current trend of noting what has happened in Germany: consultation fees for visiting the doctor were abolished in Germany on 1 January 2013.

Co-payments, as they were called, of €10 if you visited the doctor in any given quarter or if you went to a specialist without a referral, were introduced by Schroder’s government in 2004. Addressing similar concerns to the NHS at present on health costs and the waste of doctors’ time on trivial conditions it was thought, at the time, to be a good idea by all the main parties in Germany. It was supposed to deter the practice in Germany’s compulsory health insurance system of patients hopping from specialist to specialist. They also thought it would bring in approximately €2bn per year.

Once in opposition the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens turned against the idea of co-payments. As you would have predicted the charges deterred many people from going to the doctor. So it is obvious that the cost in dealing later with deteriorating conditions and in personal misery was great. Even on the projected revenue the German government did not meet its targets. When the abolition of co-payments was debated in the Bundestag last November the Financial Times Deutschland reported that medical practices spent approximately 120 hours a year collecting the fee, a total administrative cost of €360m. Once it came to a vote at the end of last year – coincidentally on the historic date of 9 November – the ruling conservative-liberal coalition (CDU/CSU and FDP) also changed their minds and the Bundestag voted unanimously to abolish the charge.

Could co-payments be introduced in Britain? The idea could be sold as a fairer method than restricting the number of GP visits per patient, it would be said "only those who can afford to pay will have to make this small contribution". But people of all income brackets have commitments to meet, whether it is a mortgage, rent or bills and any fee, no matter how small will deter people from seeking medical help. For those with long-term conditions the need to see your doctor regularly is clear. For the rest of us, also, we need to see the doctor when we have concerns. We may dismiss our niggling symptoms, but we will all get something serious eventually and it may happen sooner if, being human, we decide to spend our tenner on something other than going to the doctor for a trivial matter.

I would suggest that following recent top-down healthcare reforms it is only a matter of time before a formal proposal on GP visits is made – the Tory idea on restricting the number of visits is just to test the water. Universalism has not been defended but is a sound principle. It is more straightforward, we all contribute (even those on out-of-work benefits pay VAT) and we all benefit. The bureaucracy of means-testing is avoided. The case for the better-off benefiting is clear, we are all part of the community and the costs can be recouped by looking at the tax paid by the better-off. In terms of GP visits this is another case where we can learn from the way the Germans do things – a mistake was made but they reconsidered it and put it right.