By Angelos Anastasiou
EARLIER this month, Tom a 19-year-old from the UK had finished his school-leaving exams and to celebrate visited Ayia Napa with his friends. A few days and some dubious choices later, he found himself in a bar-fight, was badly injured and in need of immediate medical care.
Someone made a call and an ambulance arrived within minutes. It was not long before Tom was transported to a private clinic in Protaras. He hadn’t requested to be taken there, nor had he been asked for his views on the public-hospital versus private-clinic debate. He didn’t know there is a public hospital in nearby Paralimni, but he realised something was off when he was asked whether he had insurance or would be paying in cash.
Tom refused to pay and called his father who, being a seasoned diplomat, simplified matters a great deal. A short while later, the phone of the British High Commissioner to Cyprus rang. As it turned out, not much explaining was required. In his time in Cyprus, this was not the first time the commissioner had come across this scenario. The clinic was refusing to release or transfer the boy until it was paid its considerable medical bills, but the commissioner’s personal intervention was enough to settle the matter.
Foreigners in Cyprus often find themselves entangled in such situations, and not all are lucky enough to have high-ranking diplomats making phone calls on their behalf. But even more worryingly, it seems these situations are more than mere misunderstandings.
According to one health ministry source, the usual scenario is this: hospitals, pubs and tour operators in the Ayia Napa, Protaras and Paralimni area are approached by private clinics and asked to divert instances of hapless tourists in need of – preferably urgent – medical care to them, and they dispatch their ambulance. Naturally, the number of instances diverted determines the commission payable.
Apparently this sort of thing is a regular occurrence in the Famagusta area. The UK consulate is all too aware of the problem, so much so that the Sunday Mail did not even have to finish explaining when it contacted them to inquire.
“Yes, we know what this is about,” one official told the Sunday Mail. “It’s been happening for years.”
At first, the obvious assumption was that corrupt public-ambulance drivers were being paid off to divert patients to private clinics in violation of their mandate.
“Absolutely not,” said one health ministry official. “Public ambulances are not involved in such cases.”
Another possible explanation presented was a linguistic barrier. The Greek word for ‘hospital’ typically suggests a public all-encompassing healthcare facility, whereas ‘clinic’ in Greek refers to a specialised private one. This distinction is not as clearly defined in the English language, perhaps causing misunderstanding, the Sunday Mail was told. The argument seemed facile.
But at least one person close to Tom suspected that what happened to him was a much wider conspiracy, and offered a chilling hypothesis.
“It’s a scam, you see,” she said. “They beat people up and then call for a private ambulance.”
There has been no evidence to support this thesis, but in response to the disturbing recurrence of injured tourists being transferred to private clinics without being asked, the UK consulate has taken specific measures, both pre-emptive, like warning British tourists travelling to Cyprus, and reactive like offering victims a list of lawyers. They have also tried to engage the government.
“We have raised this matter with the health ministry in the past, but not much can be done,” the consulate said.
Although this is perceived by the health ministry as a “terrible problem” where “there certainly are ethical concerns for all involved,” as it turns out it’s not clear that a law is being broken.
“There’s not much we can do,” the ministry source repeated. “When there are injuries, if the call does not come through emergency services, we will never know someone’s hurt and needs a ride to the hospital. We try to inform people but they don’t necessarily know a public ambulance from a private one.”
Many tourists have been unnecessarily separated from their money through this ploy, though the cost is not necessarily the worst of it. A victim with serious injuries transferred to a private clinic against his or her wishes may be forced to waste valuable time in declining treatment and arranging for transfer to a public facility. People’s very health may be at stake.
The answer, of course, is the charge-free three-digit number to emergency services in several countries in the world, including all EU-member states – 112. Calling this number will ensure the dispatch of a public ambulance for a free transfer to a public hospital.
Tom was only recently released from a UK hospital, where he had been recuperating. His experience of Cyprus holidays is not likely to bring him back any time soon, and he probably won’t be suggesting Cyprus as a holiday destination to others. Worst of all, his future narrative may focus on the ambulance trick instead of the unfortunate beating.