Why Denmark’s health service needs treatment


A leaflet explaining the emergency phone line

At the beginning of the year, Greater Copenhagen brought in a new health rule.  It decided that patients needing emergency care shouldn’t just turn up at hospital.  Instead they should call a helpline number – 1813 – where trained staff would access the problem over the phone and decide whether or not the patient needed to go to accident and emergency.  If they felt the person did they would book him/her an appointment at either the local hospital or the one with the shortest waiting time.

The system hasn’t proved popular.  Danish news has been full of stories about people waiting in endless phone queues to speak to a health professional.  Others have described being turned away from hospital because they didn’t call the helpline first.  Then in March a woman suffering with chest pains called the hotline and was advised by the on-call doctor to take two painkillers and go back to bed.  An hour later she was dead.

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Information in English about the emergency phone line

On the fist day of my four-year-old son’s summer holiday, he managed to fall out of a tree house.  He was in severe pain and his arm looked very red and blotchy.  My husband called the 1813 number and a nurse called me back so that I could describe his symptoms.  By then Charlie was calmer and the nurse assured me I did not need to take him to hospital because his arm wasn’t broken.  How did she know when she hadn’t seen him?  She told me that because he could move his fingers it couldn’t be broken.  So we followed her advice and found ice from the freezer and gave him some calpol.

The next morning he seemed happier but was still in obvious pain.  A friend of mine who was a GP back in Ireland said she’d take a look at him.  She told me that she thought he had a fracture and that I needed to get him x-rayed.  Half an hour later and I was still waiting to speak to a nurse on the 1813 helpline to book an appointment.  When I finally did get through she told me she couldn’t guarantee he’d be x-rayed but I could go along to hospital and wait.

charlie bed

Charlie following surgery

We were finally seen – almost 24 hours after the accident.  The doctor, who was both friendly and attentive, agreed to have him x-rayed and guess what, his arm had two fractures – one big, one small.  He was put in a plaster cast up to his shoulder by two more doctors who again couldn’t have been nicer.  But the cast was fairly soft and when my husband took Charlie back for a check-up six days later an x-ray showed the bone had set incorrectly.  Charlie needed a full operation under general anaesthetic to re-break the bone, insert two metal pins and then spend another five weeks in plaster.

nurse 1

Charlie with his nurse after his first op

Thankfully the op went well and the staff at Hvidovre Hospital couldn’t have been more professional, friendly and caring towards Charlie – they even gave him a teddy bear.  This week he underwent his second op to have both the pins and plaster cast removed.  Again the staff were fabulous and so too were the facilities.

charlie nurse 2

Charlie after his second op with another great nurse

But that doesn’t change the fact that the Danish health care system got it wrong.  In the UK the health hotline has also been criticised.  But members of the public can still turn up at A and E at any time of the day or night to see a doctor – even if the wait can be long.


The metal pins inserted into Charlie’s arm

There’s no denying that once in the Danish hospital system it was impressive – clean, lots of attentive staff, state-of-the-art equipment.  Sadly, despite the enormous tax Danes pay, accessing those services isn’t easy.  I hope politicians and bureaucrats see sense and sort it out sooner rather than later.




  1. Hi Alex
    Your are right, it is not a way to communicate with people with a Health issue, it is actually a shame and it is disregard to the patient. I do not think the doctors like the system, they have a serious attitude to people who are sick, but the politicians who made this system are up in the corner, raise taxes or reduce service. They cannot raise taxes, they are already the highest in the world.

    I spend many years abroad and during those years I found, the Danish Health Care System is not the best in the world, but tell that to Denmark and they will make a inquisition on you and burn you on the fire for showing disrespect to the National identity.

    In Lithuania, a country the Danes regard as something similar to their garbage bin, I needed a scanning. In Denmark that would take me, weeks or months of waiting time, I was with the doctor one day and next day at 11.00 I was scanned in a Brand new Siemens MCR scanner, third day I was treated and fresh again. If I need to visit a specialist for eyes, I waited 2 days, Danes wait for months.
    In the same country you will find some of the best help for Spine problems, tailor made rehabilitation and done by computers made in USA by specialist in the field……. They just download you scanning from the CMR to their computers and is then able to tailor a special computer program for you, which treats your Spine in different ways, with nano millimeters of precision. 10 treatments of each 30 min, 1500 DKk total.

    • Thanks Henrik for your very interesting comments. Once in the Danish health system it seems to work well – it’s just getting into it which can be difficult. But then waiting lists in the UK are growing all the time.

  2. Sorry to hear about your problem getting in. Actually the mistake in communication with the 1813 line is that people think they cannot go directly to the emergency, but have to call 1813 first. This is wrong. I fell and hurt my foot, believing it to be just sprained I did nothing, put ice on and waited until the next morning. As it was no better, I went directly to the emergency “akutmodtagelse” at my local hospital. It was 7.40 in the morning- they opened at 7.00- the akutmodtagelse is open from 7-22- whereas the skadestue is open 24/7. No one else was waitng so I got in directly and at 8.10 I had my x ray- foot was broken !

    I asked if it was a problem that I did not call 1813, and got the reply “of course we will admit you, if you come, the point of calling is to see how urgent it is, and if it is not and the wait here at our reception is long, then you can wait at home and come just before it is your turn.”

    The point here is to say- turn up at the akutmodtagelse if you are not better- especially with a child- they will take you in- no matter what they said on the phone. I think the nurse made a big mistake with your son, she should have known that with children the bones are difficult to evaluate as they are not fully developed- and actually break easily I have been told- something only an x ray will show. My advice to all expats with children, find out the opening hours of your local Akutmodtagelse and which Skadestue you belong to and if in doubt- just go with your yellow insurance card.
    Hope you still had a good summer !

  3. When I lived in Denmark in 1996-8, I found the health system as being sexist. Women could get a free cancer examinations, but I, a man, could not. Breast exams were free while prostate exams were not.

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