What to Do When You’re Sick in France

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In the US a trip to the ER can be as bad as the injury itself. Abroad, that’s another story…

A few months ago in Paris, I had an unfortunate run-in with a rather large piece of broken glass, leading to a decidedly unromantic evening spent at the ER. Seven stitches and a breezy administrative experience later, I was back on my merry way. Appreciating the relatively unaffected balance in my bank account, I realized how different medical care is from one country to the next.

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Ravaged with anxiety over their travels or the US’s lacking healthcare system, most Americans ask me about France’s healthcare system. In short, medical care in France is generally very good. (And yes, you can also drink tap water here.) So what happens when you get sick in France or have a (non-life-threatening) medical emergency? Read on to learn a few things that will make feeling sick not so bad after all.

You can see any doctor, no ER visit necessary

When you have a medical issue, the first go-to doctor is a “médécin traitant” (general practitioner, or GP). Unlike in the US, you can pretty much see any doctor, even if they aren’t your usual doctor or you don’t have French insurance. The GP will either find a solution or direct you to a specialist. Most doctors have their own practice or share a practice with one or two other doctors, so don’t be surprised when you’re sitting in a waiting area that looks like someone’s living room on the 4th floor of an apartment building with the doctor’s dog taking a nap in the afternoon sun. The casual, non-medical atmosphere shouldn’t give you any particular apprehension regarding the doctor’s skill set. Doctors go through essentially the same grueling education in France as they do in the United States.

In larger cities, many doctors speak some English, but you can always count on the universal “point to where it hurts.” Here’s a list of key French medical terms to help you get by!

Going to the doctor doesn’t always cost un bras and une jambe

Wait… so if medical care is so good in France, how am I not paying 500€ per visit?

Thanks to a little thing called universal healthcare here in France, through government-subsidized healthcare, the cost of a doctor’s visit ranges from mostly to completely covered. You can also buy private health insurance (“mutuelles”), paid for through work or independently, and they’ll pick up the rest of the bill.

Even if you don’t have French health insurance, you’ll still find the tab doesn’t sting much. A visit to a general practitioner usually costs 23-26€, although some doctors in larger cities hike their prices up. You may find yourself paying up to 40-50€ in the swankiest neighborhoods of Paris. (You know, the price of placing your left toe in the exam room of some doctor’s offices in the United States.)

Neither you nor your bank account will die at the hospital

French hospitals won’t wait for you to show proof of insurance before giving you medical care, and most of the time the bill comes in the mail a few weeks later. Before you start wondering if you need to sell your car to pay for an overnight hospital stay, check and see what your insurance at home will cover. With absolutely zero insurance coverage, you could pay a thousand or so euros. For someone with a Carte Vitale, the national healthcare card, a hospital stay costs roughly 20€ per day plus 20% of the total care costs. (Though a private insurance “top-up” plan would cover those fees.) Find out who qualifies for Carte Vitale here.

One caveat to note: don’t trust the urban legend that French hospital food is gourmet. I know everyone loves to fantasize about French cuisine, but public hospital food isn’t getting a Michelin star anytime soon. The closest thing to a white tablecloth and fromage course you’ll be getting is your hospital gown and the slice of cheese of your meal tray. After giving birth to my daughter, my hospital meal was a sad-looking plate of ham and lentils which, despite being protein-packed, couldn’t hold a candle to my sushi cravings.

Pharmacies: better than CVS

It’s not an optical illusion: those neon green crosses on what seems like every single street really are pharmacies. The French spend a lot of time in pharmacies—you’ll realize that when you run in for something and the person in front of you is chatting away with the pharmacist like they’ve been best friends for twenty years.

Have a scrape you need to get checked out, or a minor cold? Instead of heading straight to the doctor’s, the pharmacy (“la pharmacie”) is a pretty good option. Pharmacists can take a look and tell you whether or not you should see a doctor, and what over-the-counter medication might help. Of course, if you’re not sick, the pharmacy might still be your favorite spot for the cosmetics, aptly called parapharmacie. Sunscreen, face cream, shampoo: it’s all there, and pretty heavenly for beauty aficionados (remember when Frenchly fell in love with la crème?).

Medication is readily available, and cheap

The pharmacy is also where you stop right after seeing a doctor, to get your prescription filled. A major issue in France is that many doctors overprescribe medication, leading to situations where you see someone getting a prescription filled and it looks like they’re doing their weekly grocery run at Walmart. During my own appointments, I’ve had doctors ask me what else I “wanted” a prescription for!

Pharmacists, in addition to doing consultations, have also been known to give out prescription medication to people without prescriptions. A friend of mine in Paris had an ear infection, but no French insurance. Taking the suggestion of a French woman who said she could get prescription antibiotics from the pharmacy if she asked nicely, she went to the pharmacy and explained her symptoms. Surprise surprise, they sold her a box of antibiotics.

When it comes to paying, having a Carte Vitale means that the cost of most medication is fully reimbursed. Pulling my credit card out only to hear the total is 1€32 never gets old. What really never gets old is people complaining about that 1€. I’ve heard people in front of me get really worked up over less than 5€ for several boxes of prescription medication. I know the French are used to paying a lot of money (re: high taxes) but just once I’d like to see a French person’s reaction to footing the bill for prescription drugs at a CVS.

If you really are feeling crummy though, go to a GP. Search here or here or to find a doctor, or call SOS Médécins if you need a house call. On your way to the pharmacy to pick up your prescription, stop by a bakery for some croissant-shaped comfort; France isn’t such a bad place to catch a cold after all.