Finding Help When You Get Sick in Europe

By Rick Steves
For general ailments, a trip to a pharmacy may be all you need, as pharmacists in Europe are generally able to diagnose and prescribe medication more freely than in the US. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)

There's an old travelers' adage that says, "When you get sick overseas, get on the first plane out and fly home for quality health care." Those days are long gone. Based on my own experiences — and those of the many Europeans and travelers I've met — it seems that if you're traveling in Europe and need medical help, you're generally in capable hands.

Nearly all European countries have a universal health care system. Though some people refer to it as Europe's "free health care" system, in reality, it's not really free. While each country has its own variation, the common denominator is that everyone pays for health care as a society — intending to minimize the overall expense and spread around the cost and risk so that an unlucky few are not bankrupted by medical costs. This also ensures that those living in poverty can get the care they might not otherwise be able to afford. 

For instance, in the United Kingdom, the National Health Service provides health care from cradle to grave, paid for by employers and employees, who contribute directly from their earnings. The creation of this service came after World War II. As one English doctor explained it, before the war it was pay or die. But after the Continent was devastated by war, Europeans decided to rebuild their society by casting aside a laissez-faire system in favor of health care for all. 

In Italy, the amount residents pay into the national health care system depends on their income. Though my Italian friends tell me that the standard of care is generally good, they also complain about long wait times to get appointments for tests. They also cite issues with hospital conditions — while some boast the latest medical equipment and serve four-star meals, others struggle to maintain hygienic conditions. 

One benefit of a universal system is that everyone is taken care of — including foreigners. So if you get sick or injured while traveling, you will receive treatment, no questions asked. 

So what should you do if you need medical attention in Europe? For run-of-the-mill health problems, try a pharmacy first (usually marked with a green cross). European pharmacists can diagnose and prescribe remedies for many simple problems, such as sore throats, fevers, stomach issues, sinus problems, insomnia, blisters, rashes, urinary tract infections, or muscle, joint, and back pain. Most cities have at least a few 24-hour pharmacies.

For accidents or life-threatening emergencies, go to a hospital. In most countries, you can call 112, the European Union's universal emergency number for ambulance, fire department, or police. Most countries also have a 911 equivalent that works as well. Or you can ask a hotelier, restaurant host, or whoever's around to call an ambulance or taxi for you. 

In non-emergency situations, clinics are a good place to seek treatment or get routine tests done. Clinics in Europe operate just like those in the US: You'll sign in with a receptionist, answer a few questions, then take a seat and wait for a nurse or doctor. To locate a doctor, clinic, or hospital, ask around at places that are accustomed to dealing with Americans on the road, such as tourist offices and large hotels.

A visit to the emergency room or clinic may be free, or they may charge a fee (usually nominal by our standards; more if a hospital stay or surgery is involved).  If there's a charge, you will likely have to pay out of pocket, even if your insurance company provides international coverage. Make sure you get a copy of your bill so that when you return home, you can file a claim with your insurance company to be reimbursed. If you purchased travel insurance to serve as your primary medical coverage, call the company as soon as possible to report the injury. They can usually work with the hospital directly to get your bills paid.

Luckily, I've never been seriously injured while traveling in Europe. But I hear countless tales about travelers needing medical treatment. One person told me about how she sprained her ankle during a visit to Denmark. She was X-rayed, bandaged up, and given a pair of crutches to use. The hospital did not ask her to pay a dime — only to return the crutches when she left Denmark. 

Recently, my staff member's infant son developed a lung infection while the family was in Avignon, France. After rushing him to the doctor, he was hospitalized for several days and received excellent care before being released and cleared to fly home. As my staff member put it, "Anyone who says socialized medical care is subpar hasn't seen it in action." 

No system is perfect. But perhaps if more Americans actually experienced universal health care, they could begin to see the benefits it can have on society.