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THE first thing Polish immigrants brought to Britain, when the country opened its doors to eastern European workers in 2004, was an admirable work ethic. Gangmasters told stories about farm labourers picking cabbages at night, by the light of car headlamps. Then Polish delicatessens began to appear, selling herring and pierogi; then came Polish solicitors. But the Poles’ most intriguing import, and the one that ought to cause native Britons to think hardest, is medical care.
Hard by the Hanger Lane gyratory, a grotty eight-lane roundabout in west London, is a quiet pioneer. The My Medyk clinic opened in 2008 and now has 30,000 patients on its rolls. The firm has opened a second branch in London and wants to open a third. Rivals are multiplying. Most of these private clinics contain dentists, general practitioners (GPs), paediatricians and gynaecologists. They have pulled off the remarkable feat of selling medical care to working- and middle-class people who could get it for nothing.
It is British primary care, however, that many Poles find wanting. Some prefer to see Polish-speaking doctors, although many who use the private clinics speak excellent English. More simply want better customer service than British GPs tend to provide, with their brief consultations and frustrating systems for booking appointments. And the immigrants are used to a different set-up. In Poland, as in much of continental Europe, GPs do not act as gatekeepers. Patients book appointments directly with specialists, who also perform procedures that would be classed as out-patient services in Britain.
“There was a gap in the market”, explains Radek Przypis, manager of the Hanger Lane outfit. The clinics charge fixed fees, which are published on their websites, for consultations and treatments. This means that they rely on regular customers for revenue, and need to treat them well if they are to retain them. The clinics often invest in imaging and diagnostic equipment, such as ultrasound scanners (a 3-D pregnancy scan costs £95, or $146). This is a booming business: more children in Britain are now born to Polish women than to women from any other foreign country.
The clinics also reflect the famous Polish immigrant penchant for hard work. Krzysztof Zemlik, business development manager at the Green Surgery in central Manchester, which admits patients until 9pm or 10pm seven days a week, says that his surgery sometimes stays open until two or three o’clock in the morning. The My Medyk clinic successfully lobbied to be allowed to open on Sundays (it pointed out that taxi firms are able to do so).
Though set up to meet demand from Britain’s growing Polish population, the clinics are trying to broaden their appeal. Manchester’s Green Surgery has Slovaks, Hungarians and, oddly, Portuguese on its books. Whereas the Green Surgery caters mainly to professionals, My Medyk’s patients come from a broader range of backgrounds. Many of them are “people working on construction sites and cleaning people’s houses,” says Mr Przypis.
The clinics hope to expand by offering major procedures at private hospitals in Poland. They also believe they can convince Britons of ordinary means to pay for regular check-ups—something that is currently a lifestyle product aimed at the affluent. In short, they aim to improve British health care, doing to the medical market what Polish farm labourers did to England’s fields. They may not succeed—but the attempt is worth watching.
– The Economist