Going to the doctor has never been at the top of my favorite-things-to-do list. Luckily, those visits have almost always been limited to an annual physical where the cost was covered by my health insurance. Just before we moved from the US to France we each had one of those yearly exams and as our first year anniversary of living in another country approached it was time to do it all over again. This has been quite the learning experience.
France has consistently ranked high for health care when compared with countries around the world. It surprised me to learn that generally speaking, here you apparently only go to the doctor if you are sick. One of our neighbors told us that you might check in with your general practitioner once every five years or so but unless you have a specific complaint, you typically don’t go in. Given that we aren’t yet fluent in the language, we still thought it might be a good idea to establish a relationship with a doctor before we had to figure out how to name body parts or describe ailments that required a dictionary. Where to start?
In the US to find a doctor we used our insurance company’s website to locate a provider who accepted our coverage. Here, we used the government’s website http://annuairesante.ameli.fr/ to do exactly the same thing. Searching with our address we found 2 doctors, both within a 5-minute walk from our house, who offered appointments from 8 AM to 7 PM on weekdays, 8 AM to noon on Saturdays, walk-ins without appointments as required, plus house calls. They even listed their rates: 23 euros/dollars per office visit, which is the standard across the country. Great—how do we get an appointment? Not so great—you have to telephone.
We do fine in face-to-face conversations in French since it’s quickly clear with facial expressions or other body language when somebody doesn’t understand what the other person has just said. On the telephone, especially with cell phones that cut in and out, we find it extremely difficult to achieve even basic communication. Luckily our French friend, Ludivine, agreed to make the call for us and 5 days later we each had an appointment. She said that the only information that the receptionist asked for was our names and telephone number.
We arrived 5 minutes before our appointment time to find only one other person in the waiting area who told us that she had been there for 20 minutes. Two other patients came in the room, with all of us exchanging “bonjour” and then the doctor appeared and summoned the woman who had been waiting the longest. Less than 10 minutes later the two of us were sitting in the doctor’s office explaining why we were there. We had written out basic family health histories, which he read through, and then asked us a couple of questions before giving each of us the kind of check up we were used to in the US: height, weight, blood pressure, stethoscope for the heart and lungs plus inquiring about any problems we might be having.
So, what was different? First off, it was the doctor himself, smartly dressed but no white coat, who escorted us from the waiting room to the exam room which was also his office. Nothing was rushed. Most of the conversation was in French but he easily switched to English when discussing any medications to ensure that we all understood each other. No blood was drawn. He wrote each of us a prescription for the tests that were to be run and told us the closest laboratory where we could have that done. To conclude this genuine one-man operation, the doctor then collected our 23 euro fee each, walked us to the exit door, and said to phone him when we had the blood test results so that he could evaluate them. “No need for another appointment”, he said, “I’ll just have a look between patients.”
According to our health insurance company’s records, my check up just before leaving the US cost 913 dollars, which they covered in full. We were very lucky to have had such excellent care and coverage there and it seems our good luck is continuing here.