Six Secrets to a Successful Doctor's Visit
Going to the doctor’s shouldn’t be something you dread. In fact, it’s a totally normal part of life and we should be willing to seek help from an expert whenever we have doubts or concerns about our health. I’ll be honest with you, though, it’s personally one of those things I put off and put off. I don’t know why, but I just avoid going to the doctor’s. I’ve been blessed to have good overall health and when small illnesses like the common cold come up, I tend to think that it’s more beneficial for me to stay in and rest than weather the elements to make it to my doctor in order for her to tell me that I do, in fact, have a cold.
My anecdotal experiences aside, it’s really important that you DO feel comfortable going to the doctor when you need to. This is especially important while you’re living abroad in Spain as it may involve a bit more preparation and/or there may be some differences compared to the healthcare system you’re used to back home.
First off, Spain has a universal healthcare system meaning that citizens pay into health coverage for everyone and so you can go to the hospital to receive care without needing private insurance. Although this applies to non-residents as well (ie. someone on a student visa), you should also be aware of your program’s policies if you’ve come with a study abroad program or other sort of organization. When I studied abroad, program fees included private health insurance. If I needed any sort of medical care, I was supposed to try to use my American health insurance first (my parents had notified the company that I would be abroad) and then to use the program’s health insurance provider if my primary care was not accepted.
Keep in mind that here in Spain there are particular clinics and hospitals for private or public healthcare. Additionally, in some cities, certain hospitals only care for certain illnesses or residents of certain neighborhoods. Add to this any of the which-insurance-provider-to-use doubts I mentioned above and I simply NEVER went to the doctor while I studied abroad. It just seemed too complicated. Luckily, I never got really sick...but if I had, I would have been in a tough spot. In order to keep you out of this uninformed spot I was in as a student, here are my secrets to feeling more comfortable:
1.) Educate yourself: What kind of healthcare insurance do you have to use (if any)? Which clinics/hospitals can you go to? Where is the nearest one located? It may be smart to also write down or save to your phone the numbers for a general practitioner and any specialists you are likely to need during your time here in Spain.
Pro-Tip: In case of an emergency, the ‘911-equivalent’ in Spain (and across Europe) is 112. Don’t hesitate to call if you feel it’s necessary!
2.) Know the general procedures: Like in the US, the norm is to call ahead and make an appointment to see your doctor. Of course, if you are feeling sick at the moment and want to see them as soon as possible you can ask to come in right away. Depending on your office, you can also just drop by, but keep in mind this will having varying effectiveness depending on the capacity of the office. At my doctor's small private practice, this is no problem at all but this may not fly everywhere.
Some Useful Expressions: Quiero pedir una cita ___ = I'd like to make an appointment ___. / Está ocupad@ esta manana/tarde o puedo pasarme ahora? = Are they busy this morning/afternoon or can I drop by now? / No tengo una cita previa, pero me pregunto si puedo conseguir una consulta. = I don't have an appointment, but I was wondering if I could get a consultation.
3.) Prepare in advance: After years of living in Spain, I still review the vocabulary I want to use at the doctor’s ahead of time. Sometimes this means simply checking a few words in the dictionary and sometimes it means sending a photo to a good friend and saying “How do I explain this in Spanish?” (I am NOT pulling your leg.) Please, please, please do not have any shame in doing so―this is one of those times in which your pride in knowing Spanish well should not get in the way of having a successful experience!
Pro-Tip: On the same note, if you don’t feel completely comfortable speaking in Spanish under these circumstances, do not hesitate to ask a friend, colleague, or host family member to accompany you. If you don’t have anyone to go with you that day, you can also ask for a translator in most hospitals.
4.) Don’t be afraid to ask questions: Again, your health is at stake so nodding along and pretending you know what the doctor is saying to you when you don’t will do nothing but hurt you. Even when I believe I’ve understood the doctor perfectly I repeat my understanding back to them in my own words to double-check. Don’t worry about acting like a ‘stupid foreigner’―doctors are used to people asking a lot of questions!
Pro-Tip: If the doctor prescribes me anything or refers me to a specialist, I ask her to write down ALL the information (including any non-prescription things she simply recommends). This triple-covers you because 1.) You won’t forget what she said 2.) You won’t say it wrong and 3.) The pharmacist (or whoever you need to see next) won’t be completely confused when you say the name of the drug (arguably) perfectly but not in the particular accent he is expecting.
5.) Don’t be alarmed if they send you to the hospital: I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking that the hospital was only for grave issues*. However, it is totally normal in Spain to go directly to the hospital from emergencies, or urgencias, which I have come to understand mean anything that causes you to what to see the doctor today, from the flu to a UTI to everything in between. If you have private insurance, there are typically clinics outside of the hospitals but they will still send you to the hospital if you need to get any x-rays or tests. This is not unusual, it’s just normal protocol.
Pro-Tip: Like anywhere, public health insurance means there may be a long wait. Be sure to bring your book or other forms of entertainment in case it takes a while to get your consultation.
6.) Sometimes you don’t even have to go to the doctor’s: Now, if you’re like me, this one will be your favorite tip. If you’ve got minor injuries or pain and no reason to believe it’s caused by anything serious, my first stop would be the pharmacy, not the doctor’s. Here in Spain the pharmacists are ready and willing to listen to your symptoms and recommend a remedy. Of course, there are still medicines that they can’t hand out to anyone and will require a prescription from your doctor (i.e. antibiotics) but you can get your allergy medicine, cold/flu cures, etc at the pharmacy without going through the whole doctor’s visit. (Still recommend tip 3 unless you enjoy a game of charades in which you act out your symptoms.)
Pro-Tip: If you are looking for something a little bit more natural to cure your cold, don't be afraid to ask your PHARMACIST for some echinacea tea or check out the herbolarios in your neighborhood. These stores are like more 'natural' PHARMACIES that don't contain any "normal" medicine, but have other types of REMEDIES that might be interesting to you.
*Perhaps my perspective is skewed because my family doctor had her office on the same grounds as the hospital so if she sent me to ‘the hospital’ for x-rays I didn’t realize it because I just thought of it as walking to the next building over.