One of the most popular myths about “life being better in the USSR” is the myth about its unmatched and accessible health system. There is another myth that the World Health Organization recognized the USSR’s health system as the best.
What was wrong with healthcare in the Soviet Union? You can find out the answer in our new material.
In the 1930s, Nikolai Semashko, People’s Commissar of Public Health, initiated a medical reform in the Soviet Union. Medical workers were deployed to the new medical and obstetrical centers established throughout the USSR.
However, in terms of the development of the medical sphere, the USSR was significantly lagging behind the West. Instead of focusing on the quality of medicine, soviet officials were increasing the number of hospitals and medics maintained by the state. Soviet leadership believed that in this way, they demonstrated the might of the USSR and made sure to be always ready to treat wounded soldiers in case of a new war.
Despite the abundance of hospitals, they were often overwhelmed with patients, with people often lying in the corridors. One of the reasons was that people were often hospitalized unnecessarily. Sometimes workers would stay in the hospitals to rest and eat.
The USSR had a severe shortage of medicine and had no anesthesia at all. Dental work was mostly done without painkillers (they were reserved for tooth extraction), and teeth were filled either with amalgam (an alloy of mercury with metal) or cement (such filling did not last long).
In addition to being unsightly, amalgam fillings were also a toxic health hazard.
Doctors were using reusable needles and glass syringes. Disinfecting was simply done by boiling.
In the outside world, disposable glass syringes were patented as early as 1949, with plastic ones appearing in 1956. Their mass production began in 1961.On the territories of the USSR, on the other hand, disposable needles and syringes did not appear until the 1990s.
Doctors had no access to innovative medical technology and had no way of sharing expertise with their Western counterparts since they lived behind the “iron curtain”. That seriously hindered medical progress.
Medics often relied on obsolete methods of treatment and resorted to folk medicine. Sometimes they sent patients in rather severe conditions to drink water at health resorts instead of prescribing actual treatment.
Doctors would often prescribe unnecessary antibiotics. And in the 1980s came the popularity of homeopathic medicine, the effectiveness of which has remained unproven to this day.
There is a myth about healthcare in the USSR having been free; however, that is not quite right. The medical budget was allocated from the total USSR budget; hence, it was fueled by the taxes paid by workers. Because the health system was seen as “free”, the patients were often treated in a crude and formal manner.
To earn better treatment, one had to put “gifts” in medical staff’s pockets or leave a “bag of treats” under the chief physician’s desk. This contributed to corruption in the healthcare system, the consequences of which we are still combating today.
The soviet healthcare system was also notorious for its depravity. Psychiatric hospitals in the USSR not only kept patients in real need of medical help but detained those who were allegedly undermining soviet ideology, e.g., Ukrainian dissidents.
Doctors applied the so-called “punitive (repressive) psychiatry” against the people who committed crimes of opinion. People with no mental health issues were forced into psychiatric hospitals and stuffed with drugs that rendered them dysfunctional.
Admittedly, the USSR was home to many genuinely decent medics, surgeons, and scientists in the medical sphere who made valuable contributions to its growth. But those scientists were often subject to conditions that made it hard for them to realize their potential.