Le Malade Imaginaire: Is France Making Me a Hypochondriac?

If you’ve ever been to Paris, you probably recognize this.

The ubiquitous French pharmacie. Like fresh baguettes, crottes de chien and striped marinière tops, they are literally everywhere in Paris. In fact, the website pharmacien.fr says there are 1,059 pharmacies in the city alone. That’s about 50 pharmacies for each arrondissement. That’s a lot of pharmacies.

Why, you ask, do the French need so many pharmacies, most of which peddle the same products by the same manufacturers for the same price? To answer this question, one need only visit a doctor in France for an ailment as mild as dry skin. Or the common cold. Because for these — and for almost any other affliction you can imagine — you will receive a prescription for medication. In fact, you will receive multiple prescriptions for multiple medications often for ailments you hadn’t even considered when you hopped up on that examining table.

The French love them some pills — for everything from dry coughs to seasonal depression brought on by low clouds and la pluie. In fact, the French are the world’s preeminent mood-altering pill-takers, consuming between two- and four-times as many tranquilizers and anti-depressants as their British, German and Italian counterparts. And yet the French are not any sicker than the rest of us.

They do, however, suffer regularly from a range of debilitating maladies (of dubious medical veracity) that any French man or woman will insist are absolutely, 100% genuine. Look no further than the national malady, la crise de foie, or “crisis of the liver.” French medical journals (and increasingly doctors) are attempting to educate the public about the truth of this ailment (better known as bad gas complemented by a hangover). But any (ailing) Frenchman will insist that it is absolutely real and requires medication. (Never mind that the lead ingredient in said Pepto Bismol-esque “medication” is alcohol…) Ahhh, the French.

They have a deeply ingrained fear of germs (les microbes) and cite them as the cause of all manner of sickness, from headaches to cancer. (See LePoint article linking germs to malignant tumors). When my kids came home from school extolling le danger of les microbes, I knew we were headed for trouble and an ever expanding medicine cabinet. A recent attempt to organize ours offered stark proof of our increasingly French ways. Herbal suppositories for the kids’ coughs? (yes, really). Prescription body lotion for dry skin? Vogalib, Fluvermal, Humex, Prednisolone, Smecta…Where had all this stuff come from? And what was any of it for, anyway? Hmm.

For a foreigner accustomed to month-long waits for doctor visits and skilled in the art of self-diagnosis courtesy of WebMD, this can be confusing — as well as entertaining. My trips to the doctor in the U.S. were always precipitated by something serious like say burning strep throat. Or pregnancy. But here? Not so. I now find myself on a first name basis with our doctor’s staff and have started to feel a bit sheepish when I make what now feel like regular office calls. Granted, most of these are for the kids (we see a family practitioner here) but truth be told, not all. Ailments I would have previously ignored now find me sitting in the doc’s now-familiar waiting room, catching up on the latest issue of People and Us Weekly. (She imports them.) Seasonal allergies? Maybe I’ll just pop into the doc. The low back pain that’s been dogging me for a while? Maybe the doctor will have a useful suggestion..or perhaps a prescription?

So what gives? One obvious explanation is France’s superior (and super cheap) health care system. I can go to any doctor I like and virtually anytime, without the need for a referral. Appointments can usually be had within a week (if not that day) and it’s almost completely covered by our health insurance. Of course all this great health care appears to have a dark side — the fact that the French consume too many meds and seem to believe they’re sicker than they actually are.

In an 2003 article from The Guardian, one French doctor put it this way. “Has the French approach to illness and the body brought about a health system that panders to le malade imaginaire, or has the efficiency and popularity of the system itself bred a whole nation of hypochondriacs? Either way, it’s something we should worry about urgently.”

But about those microbes


10 thoughts on “Le Malade Imaginaire: Is France Making Me a Hypochondriac?

  1. Hi Pam! Yes, Docteur(s) Nancy Salzman and Dr Clarke in the same practice: 1 av Lowendal in 7th. Both are English speaking (French, too). They have been great for us. 🙂 01 45 63 18 43

  2. H! Here in L.A. the green cross pictured in your story means something completely different: it is the sign of the controversial but omnipresent “medical” marijuana “dispensary.” These were originally conceived of as coops to serve those with true chronic and painful illnesses, but have become so widespread it is a joke. All of L.A. can't have cancer! At one point someone calculated that there were more dispensaries than Starbucks in Los Angeles. And yes, in regards to these, many of which have doctors on call to write emergency prescriptions, Angelenos may have as many imaginary ills as they French. The city council recently cracked down on them, but the legal battle is far from over.

  3. You forgot to mention all those horrible illnesses caused by the “courant d'air.” I had a friend in France who was given a neck brace to wear for a week because she supposedly slept with a window open and was “attacked” by the “courant d'air.”

  4. Hi Maria – I hadn't heard anything about this! Wow, as a “native Angeleno” myself, I'm not sure whether to be proud or horrified. 😉 I'm sure it has made for some interesting debates…

  5. Hi Milsters – Thanks for sharing the post! I've spoken about this with a few French friends and most readily admit their national affection for meds (while simultaneously defending the very real ills they suffer thanks to “le stress.” There's humor to be found here everyday!

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