By Rick Steves
If you’re worried about getting sick while traveling, rest assured: Most of Europe offers high-quality medical care that’s as competent as what you’ll find at home. The majority of Europe’s doctors and pharmacists speak at least some English, so communication generally isn’t an issue.
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.
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. And a staff member of mine, whose infant son received excellent care after a lung infection in France, came home to declare, "Anyone who says socialized medical care is subpar hasn't seen it in action."
While no system is perfect, Europe's universal health care does mean that everyone is taken care of — including foreigners. So if you get sick or injured while traveling, you will receive treatment, no questions asked.
If an accident or life-threatening medical problem occurs on the road, get to a hospital. For serious conditions (stroke, heart attack, bad car accident), summon an ambulance. 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 your hotelier, restaurant host, or whoever’s around to call an ambulance (or a taxi for less dire situations).
Be aware that you will likely have to pay out of pocket for any medical treatment, even if your insurance company provides international health care coverage. A visit to the emergency room can be free or cost only a nominal fee, or it can be expensive, depending on where you are and what treatment you need. Make sure you get a copy of your bill so that when you return home, you can file a claim 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 directly with the hospital to get your bills paid.
If you get sick on your trip, don’t wait it out. Find help to get on the road to recovery as soon as possible. Here are your options if you have a non-emergency situation:
Throughout Europe, people with a health problem go first to the pharmacy, not to their doctor. 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 from which you can pick up what you need and be on the mend pronto.
When it comes to medication, expect some differences between the way things are done in Europe and at home. Certain drugs that you need a prescription for in the US are available over the counter in Europe. Some drugs go by different names. And some European medications can be stronger than their counterparts in the US, so follow directions and dosages carefully. Also, topical remedies are common in Europe; if you’re suffering from body aches and pains, or any swelling, don’t be surprised if a pharmacist prescribes a cream to apply to the problem area. If you need to fill a prescription — even one from home — a pharmacy can generally take care of it promptly. If a pharmacist can’t help you, he or she will send you to a doctor or a health clinic.
A trip to a clinic is actually an interesting travel experience. Every year I end up in a European clinic for one reason or another, and every time I’m impressed by its efficiency and effectiveness.
A clinic is useful if you need to be checked for a non-emergency medical issue, get some tests done, or if your problem is beyond a pharmacist’s scope. Clinics in Europe operate just like those in the US: You’ll sign in with the receptionist, answer a few questions, then take a seat and wait for a nurse or doctor.
A trip to a clinic may be free or a small fee. Expect to pay this fee up front, whether you’re covered through your health insurance company or a special travel policy. Make sure you get a copy of the bill so you can file a claim when you return home.
If you’re holed up sick in your hotel room and would rather not go out, the hotel receptionist can generally call a doctor who will come to your room and check you out. This option is generally more expensive than dragging yourself to a pharmacy or clinic.
Finding Medical Help
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. Most embassies and consulates maintain lists of physicians and hospitals in major cities (on the US embassy’s site, select your location, and look under the U.S. Citizens Services section of that embassy’s website for medical services information).
If you’re concerned about getting an English-speaking and Western-trained doctor, consider joining IAMAT, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers. You’ll get a list of English-speaking doctors in more than 90 member countries who charge affordable, standardized fees for medical visits (membership is free but donation is requested, fee pricing on website, pay provider directly at time of visit, tel. 716/754-4883).