TOPICS : Treating a cold: British v French style

Season of sneezes and fitful drowsiness, the poet might have written. Colds, sore throats, coughing and all kinds of wintry afflictions have already stricken European workers in recent days. Perhaps the dreaded recession has played a role in sapping their morale and weakened their immune system. Whoever the culprit is, the remedy varies enormously according to where exactly in Europe you caught your germs and where you decide to be treated. France and Britain offer opposite attitudes, both from doctors and patients. In the 13 years I have lived in Britain, I’ve used five different GPs.

The scenario never changes. I get a cold; I fight for a week on my own, resorting to a cocktail of raw garlic, ginger infusion, chicken broth and hot baths. After admitting defeat, I go and consult my local GP. He or she hardly looks at me, doesn’t examine, let alone palpate me, and invariably asks: “So, what is it you have and what is it you want?” “Antibiotics?” I venture.

“Go back home, have some rest, and take an aspirin. If you’re still ill in a week, come back to see me.” I might be dead in a week.

I leave feeling even more forlorn than when I arrived. A little angry too, even if I know, deep down, that the doctor is actually right.

You shouldn’t get antibiotics for a common cold, no matter how unpleasant and debilitating it makes you feel. Except, in my native country, antibiotics is exactly what you get for a cold.

Cut to the practice of my local GP in France. Jars of pate and homemade jams given by grateful patients stand by a small aquarium; the place is cramped and tacky. However, it doesn’t feel like the administrative cell of my London GP. Le docteur asks me how I feel.

I give him all the horrid details: running nose, saliva’s discolouring and an impression of permanent fog in the brain. He seems fascinated and asks me to undress.

I already feel better: somebody is taking my cold very seriously. Thorough examination ensues: nose, ears, throat, skull, chest, stomach, blood pressure. He uses a few Latin words to say that, well, I have a cold. And I leave with a long prescription of vitamins, mineral supplements, ear drops, seawater nose spray, soothing blackcurrant pastilles and antibiotics. The mist in my brain has disappeared before I even reach the nearest pharmacy. It’s called

the placebo effect. The question, of course, is whether it makes any sense to prescribe antibiotics for a cold which is probably only a virus and not a bacterial infection. British GPs’ no-nonsense attitude is in fact, certainly in medical terms, the most sensible to adopt. And less costly, too.

However, patients may end up feeling worse: the way GPs dismiss them, generally proves emotionally counterproductive. Of course, if you have never known any other kind of medicine, you simply get on with it and have a cup of tea to juggle your rising temperature. But if you have been used to the pampering French system, your local British doctor’s apparent indifference is a bitter pill often hard to swallow. — The Guardian