6 Tips When Sick in Spain

After a recent throat infection had me dialing up my doctor, I began to reflect on being sick in a foreign country. I’m lucky to have access to public healthcare, but being a card-carrying member doesn’t always mean I understand the system. Healthcare protocol differs a fair amount between the Spain and the US; below are 6 things about healthcare I wish I’d known before coming to Spain:

 1) The pharmacist is your friend

Before making an appointment at the doctor, swing by the pharmacy first. This is where you´ll pick up all the meds you can’t find at Carrefour, like ibuprofen (ibuprofeno in Spanish). If the pharmacist can’t help you, they will tell you to make an appointment with your physician. However, your corner pharmacist is full of info and usually won’t mind helping you out.  When a teaching friend suspected she had lice, her first stop was the pharmacy, where a helpful pharmacist flipped her head over, checked for nits, and rang up a box of lice-killing solution. This certainly saved time and energy!

sick in Spain

Fact: The word piojo will never leave my head

 2) A kiwi a day…

While English speakers have a cautionary tale about an apple a day, Spaniards call upon the powers of the mighty kiwi. Coming down with the flu? Kiwis. Digestive probs got you down? Kiwi time. This is the miracle fruit my doctor recommend when I was having trouble adjusting to Spain (read: the Spanish diet) my first year here. Kiwis, kiwis, kiwis! he told me. At first I thought this quirk was specific to my doctor, but later I heard the kiwi chorus echoed at school, on a TV show, and from a Spanish friend. When in doubt, métete un kiwi.

sick in Spain

Photocredit: CxHtdui

3) There is a system to the waiting room madness

There is a worldwide dislike of the waiting room, and it can be even more miserable if you are unsure of the protocol. At places like policlínicas, medical buildings where a diverse range of doctors are grouped together, you´ll have to find your way to a specific waiting area. Take a seat and wait for the secretary to come out. The secretary is the link between the doctor and the patients–they will come to the waiting area, ask if anyone is there to see Dr. So-and-So, and then take your medical card and personal ID. They then go back to the office, where they check you in on the computer. When it´s your turn, the secretary will come out and call you back to see the doctor. Your first and even your last name will be used to call you, leading us to the next point…

4) Privacy is defined differently

While doctors won’t give out your personal deets, they are not as likely to coddle patients as their counterparts in the States are. As I mentioned above, they might call you by your full name to identify you in front of other patients. Second, specialists-in-training may prance in and out of the room while you´re in the middle of your examination, causing uncomfortable moments for Americans who are used to complete privacy. Some doctors will ask you if you mind this, but others won’t. Oh, and remember that secretary? They will also be running in  and out of the room, as well. Expect a crowd. 

5) The No pasa nada mentality can exist anywhere, even the doctor’s office

Perhaps the most bizarre experience I’ve had was to find myself holding a urine sample as I wished I was invisible in the waiting room (re: # 3 and 4). When I asked the nurse where I could drop off the sample, she waved me to a seat–Just wait, you´ll give it to the lab tech in a few minutes, she said. I felt awkward and self-conscious as I tried to hide the cup under a magazine–I was in a room full of people! I also felt unnecessarily guilty, as my American mind rushed to thoughts such as, “How can they tell that this is mine? How do they know that someone didn’t just pee in a cup for me and hand over the goods?” To this I must quietly chant that eternal Spanish phrase, No pasa nada! 

6) Age-old advice…but new to you

Your doctor may give you advice you wouldn’t expect. My favorite example of this was when a doctor–the same one with the kiwis hangup–told me I was just being nervous about my tummy issues. His sage advice at the end of our meeting? “Tranquila–go home and have a glass of wine.”

 sick in Spain

Now that’s one Rx I think I can follow.

 Fellow expats, what have you experienced while sick in Spain? What differences have you encountered with  the health care system in Spain or elsewhere?

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  1. Spot on! In Bilbao, I felt like most of the time I was seen in a pretty timely manner, even though it was a lot of back and forth-go get your blood pressure, go wait. Talk to the Dr, go wait, etc.

    One thing a lot of us auxiliares noticed was that we all got a ton on x-rays. Toochache? Xrays. Sinuses hurt? Xrays. At one point, every single one of my roommates and I had our xrays done. So random.

  2. Cassandra

    It does usually take a fair amount of time to get everything taken care of–it surprises me if I get into an appointment on time!

    Hmm, I have never heard of X-rays being that common! Maybe it’s a Pais Vasco thing and kiwis are a Madrid thing…?

  3. So you have seguridad social? This is my first year with it. It’s all so confusing to me, but I’ll not get into the details here.

    When I lived in Zamora I could just go to my MIL’s house. She has her own botiquin, which I swearrrr so many Spaniards do. I think she has prescription meds in there too! Who knows how/why she got it. She’s always offering me things.

    One things I’ve noticed is that there are fewer pills and more powders, which I hate. I avoid powders at all costs!

  4. Cassandra

    Kaley, I have private insurance through my school. Not everything is covered (i.e no dentist, etc), but the basics are. Good luck navigating social security!

    Wowzer, I wonder how your suegra had prescription meds? I’ve noticed that only this year has my pharmacist been keeping my paper prescriptions–before this she would simply fill the prescription and give the paper back to me. So perhaps your MIL got extras from a a previous prescription?

    You are right about the powders, they are much more common here! My pharmacist always hints at much better the ibuprofeno en polvo is….but seriously, how do people take that at work or on the go?!

  5. Hahaha I love the ‘have a glass of wine’ advice! I never get told to eat kiwis; usually, it’s to wrap up warm and eat more olive oil.

    But yeah, pharmacists are super helpful. They can give you everything! It’s so nice getting minor-moderate things taken care of there instead of having to go to the doctor for everything.

    Generally, I’ve found that it’s much easier, faster, and cheaper here for me to see the doctor than it is at home. I’m a fan!

  6. Cassandra

    The teachers at school are always warning against bare throats in the wintertime, so I can see where the wrap up advice comes from! I’ve never heard the advice about olive oil, though.

    Glad to hear you’ve had positive experiences with health care in Barcelona, too!

  7. i could write a book about my doctor woes at this point… i think ill write a blog about it, and title it “sick OF spain”

    ive been told the kiwi thing.. and my favorite doctor story: the doctor who unhooked my bra to listen to my breathing!

    In my opinion, doctors here seem more like counselors than doctors. Doctors barely touch me and basically just council me from the other side of their desk! Google does a better job.

  8. Cassandra

    The doctor unhooked your bra?! That’s disturbing, I hope you don’t have to go back to whoever it was 🙁

    I bet you have even more stories from the doctor since you’ve been to that scary place known as the dentist’s chair!

  9. Ah the chemist / pharmacist can be a fountain of knowledge and a lot cheaper than doctors abroad. Always worth a first stop if possible I think.

    You mention privacy in America. So how do they call you when the doctor is waiting to see you, with a number? We still call by name in the UK.

  10. Cassandra

    I can never remember my last name being used when being called at the doctor’s, only my first name.

    On a related note–when signing in at the campus clinic at my university, the school nurses would always blacken out our name with a permanent marker so that following patients wouldn’t know who had come in. In comparison with the Spanish system, the American way is pretty private!

  11. Interesting medical system they got going there in Espana!
    I hope you’re feeling better!!!

  12. Cassandra

    Thanks, dear! I am now, thanks for checkin’ in 😉

  13. I live in S Korea and the healthcare system seems similar to Spain’s. You can get a lot from the pharmacy, but if you need a doctor, you just walk in to any appropriate clinic and give them your ID card. With national healthcare, everyone’s details are already in their system, so you don’t need to carry your card.

    There’s also a definite lack of privacy. Most notably, at one busy (large) clinic which I required to use for an official checkup for work/ immigration, the nurse shouted across the waiting room at me, “Do you have any chronic illnesses? What meds are you on? When was your last period?” Oh, and the scale was in the waiting room, so everyone got to see how much I weighed and then she measured my hips and bust right there for good measure. On the plus side, as soon as I walked in, the front desk got a translator to walk around with me to each office I needed to visit to complete the checkup, just in case I needed help.

  14. Cassandra

    Oh, wow!! I would be cringing if I had to have such a public check-up. That´s so nice that they matched you with a translator, though, I bet that made things a bit less intimidating. Thanks for sharing your experience with South Korean healthcare!

  15. Haha, I love this! I can definitely agree with the no privacy point. I got suppppppppper sick this fall from gastroenteritis, and in desperation, I called my boyfriend’s mom to see if she could transport me to the doctor, as I couldn’t get off the bathroom floor. Anyway, she came into the exam room with me, and the doctor poked around my tummy a bit, and then instructed me to drop trou in the middle of the office so his assistant could give me a shot to stop the vomiting. Let me be clear. There were four other people there (doctor, boyfriend, boyfriend’s mom, and assistant) and I was standing there…without pants on. Oh well, I was so sick all my dignity was gone anyway.

    Also, good thing you can go to the pharmacy for piojos! There is an outbreak in my school and I’m desperately trying to avoid getting them!

  16. Cassandra

    Four people were in the room with you? Eeek, I would have been so embarrassed! And gastroenteritis sounds even worse, hope it didn’t hit you too hard :/

    Buena suerte with the piojos–if you feel itchy, head to the pharmacy!

  17. Ok, can I just mentioned that this happened to me AGAIN, but this time those two other people were my BOSS AND BILINGUAL COORDINATOR. They took me to the normal centro de salud because they were shocked I was paying 50 Euros for doctor consults with my insurance, and snuck me in for free. No gastro this time, just the flu, but they insisted on giving me painkillers via injection…l don’t know why. They are keen on the shots here.

    So now I can say that my bosses have seen my ass.

  18. Cassandra

    Oh my goodness!! Here’s to hoping you won’t have any more doctor’s visit at all this year!!

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