Dealing with the German Health Care System for Dummies

No one likes going to the doctor. Doctor visits are like Russian roulette:  sometimes you are lucky and you have a nice and empathetic doctor, sometimes you are less lucky and you are either treated like a child who cannot differentiate left from right, or worse, totally trashed for one reason or another. And it is a thousand times worse living abroad. Back home I generally avoid going to the doctor whenever I can, but being abroad it is something of a life mission really. It is not just the hassle of trying to find a doctor and get an appointment or even the language barrier that complicates every aspect of life here. The struggle to understand the underlying basics of the health care system is also very real, even when you come from a neighbouring country.

For the past two years, I have avoided all doctors here. I had medical issues and questions, but it was never urgent or life-threatening enough to actually step into a doctor’s office. I may have regularly visited the dentist, but these were the easier appointments, with the dentist asking the questions, and me just answering yes or no, or a short sentence at most. The ladies’ doctor was a bit more challenging, but even that did not require a whole deal of speaking German on my part. But recently I was faced with an issue requiring me to unbury my head. A matter that I would have had issues explaining in Dutch, that I had real problems describing in English, and that was nearly impossible to explain in German. Knowing that it would take a bit of courage to go to the doctor, I told mom. Mom is the ideal incentive for a doctor’s visit, as she will typically ask whether I have already gone once every few days. At some point it becomes easier to just go to the doctor than having to find new excuses not to go.

Having decided to seek medical help, the next problem is to determine which doctor to visit. It is not just about finding a doctor who speaks your language (or preferably at least more than just German), but also about the type of doctor you need to see, and of course when to see him/her. In the Netherlands proceeding is quite straightforward: your first contact person is always the GP, and you make an appointment before going there. Your GP will direct you to a medical specialist when necessary. In Germany it works a bit differently, I learned from experience. Having collected a few issues and questions over the past two years, I decided to go to the GP near the office. No appointment possible, only walk-ins. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of languages consultation was available in: not just German, but also English, French and Italian. It turned out to be my lucky day: the young doctor I had the pleasure of consulting had spent some time in the Netherlands. Using a combination of German, English, Dutch and Google Translate, we addressed all my questions.  It is still a mystery to me what people here go to the GP for though, as she informed that for none of these issues I should have come to see her. Instead, I should have gone straight to the specialist. A capital crime of some sorts back home, mind you!

Germans around me regularly complain about the long waiting lists medical specialists have, and in the case of the ladies’ doctor that was certainly justified – over half a year, and many practices did not accept new patients. But in the case of the hand surgeon, I was pleasantly surprised: the first appointment in little over a month’s time, and the suggestion to operate in three weeks – although if necessary, next week would also have been possible. Give a gal some time for mental preparation, please! But still, very impressive, Germany! I tried to win some time by proposing to call for a date after I had consulted with my boss about the best time to get it done. But by all accounts, it is going to happen before Christmas. Eat your heart out, Netherlands!

Photo credit: Hamza Butt, CC-BY 2.0



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