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!
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.
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…
Photo credit: USP Hospitales
A typical Spanish waiting room (sans the crowd)
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) 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.”
Now that’s one Rx I think I can follow.
Fellow expats, what have you experienced in doctor visits abroad? What differences have you encountered with the health care system in Spain or elsewhere?