Sick in France

A few months ago, when I was Paris, I had an unfortunate event with a rather large piece of broken glass, leading to a absolutely unromantic night spent at the ER. Seven stitches and a breezy executive experience later, I was back on my merry way. Appreciating the quite unaffected balance in my bank account, I realized how different medical care is from one country to another.

Emaciated with anxiety over their travels or the US’s lack of the health system, most Americans ask about France’s healthcare system. Medical care in France is generally very good. So what happens when you get sick in France or have a medical urgent incident?

You can see any doctor you want, no visit to the ER is necessary

When you have a medical issue, the first go-to doctor is a “médécin traitant”. 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 protection. The doctor will either find a solution or lead you to an expert. Most doctors have their own practice with one or two other doctors, so don’t be surprised when you’re sitting in a waiting line 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 specific worry regarding the doctor’s skill set. Doctors and dentists ( dentiste garde ) go through essentially the same demanding education in France as they do in the United States.

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 200€ 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 are mostly completely covered. You can also buy private health insurance which is called “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 itch much. A visit to a general doctor usually costs almost 30 euros, although some doctors in larger cities may charge you more. You may find yourself paying up to 50€ in the classiest neighborhoods of Paris.

Neither you nor your bank account will end up in a hospital

French hospitals won’t wait for you to show proof of insurance before giving you any medication, and most of the time the bill comes in the mail a few weeks after the incident. Before you start wondering if you need to sell your house in order to pay for an overnight hospital stay, check and see what your insurance covers. With absolutely zero insurance coverage, you could pay a thousand euros. For someone with a Carte Vitale, the national healthcare card, a hospital stay costs roughly 20€ per day.Find out who qualifies for Carte Vitale before you start your trip.

One caveat to note: don’t trust the urban legend that French hospital food is gourmet. I know everyone loves to think about French cuisine, but public hospital food isn’t getting a Michelin star anytime soon. The closest thing to a white tablecloth you’ll be getting is your hospital robe 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 rush to my sushi cravings.

Pharmacies

It’s not an optical illusion: those neon green crosses on what seems like every single street really are drugstores. 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 chemist like they’ve been best friends for life.

Have a scrape you need to get checked out, or a slight cold? Instead of heading straight to the doctor’s, the drugstore 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 medicine might help. Of course, if you’re not sick, the pharmacy might still be your favorite place for the cosmetics, appropriately called parapharmacie. Sunscreen, face balm, shampoo: it’s all there, and pretty heavenly for beauty fanatics.

One more important thing is that there is a pharmacy de garde in every area which is open 24 hours per day and it is actually guarding people for every need they may have when the lights are off at night.

Medication is readily 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 occupied and it looks like they’re doing their weekly grocery run at a local market. During my own appointments, I’ve had doctors ask me what else I wanted a prescription for
Chemists, in addition to doing sessions, have also been known to give out prescription medication to people without prescriptions. A friend of mine in Paris had an eye 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 drugstore and explained her symptoms. They finally bought her a box of antibiotics.

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

If you really are feeling crummy though, go to a doctor, or call SOS Médécins if you need a house call. On your way to the drugstore 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.