Adapting,  How to,  Living Abroad

Top Six Things You Should Know When Visiting a Doctor in Spain

Dear Allison,

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. We’ll be honest with you, though, it’s personally one of those things that we tend to put off. Luckily, we have good overall health and when small illnesses like the common cold come up, we tend to think that it’s more beneficial to stay in and rest than go visit a doctor to tell us that we, in fact, do have a cold.

However, it’s really important that you DO feel comfortable going to the doctor when you need to. Even if you are a bit like us and would prefer to avoid a doctor’s visit, you should never skip visiting a professional when it is necessary to do so. 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.

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. While it does also offer a plethora of private health care options, many people look to public health care for the majority of their needs. Although the possibility to use public health care also applies to non-residents as well (ie. someone on a student visa), if you are studying abroad you should also be aware of your program’s policies if you’ve come with a program or other sort of organization.

For example, when Dani studied abroad, program fees included private health insurance. If she needed any sort of medical care, she was supposed to try to use her American health insurance first (after her parents had notified the company that she would be abroad) and then to use the program’s health insurance provider if her primary care was not accepted.

Keep in mind that here in Spain that the clinics and hospitals are different 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 mentioned above and you can understand why someone would avoid venturing into that world because it can just seem too complicated. If you are not lucky enough to avoid visiting a doctor while living abroad or traveling in Spain, this is what you should know:

1.) Educate yourself:

What kind of healthcare insurance do you have to use (if any)? This is valid both for people studying abroad internationally with a program but also for people coming from other European countries with public health care options. Be sure to know what choices you have such as: What does the insurance plan look like/cover? Which clinics/hospitals can you go to? Where is the nearest one located? We would even recommend writing down or saving to your phone the numbers for a general practitioner and any specialists you are likely to need during your time here in Spain.

What are some terms you should know before booking an appointment? We recommend:

  • Una cita = an appointment

  • Médico de cabecera = general practitioner

  • El enfermero/La enfermera = (male, female) nurse

  • La consulta = doctor’s office

  • La sala de espera = waiting room

  • El hospital = hospital

  • Las urgencias = emergency room\

  • La ambulancia = ambulance

And here are some useful expressions for booking an appointment:

  • Quiero pedir una cita = I’d like to make an appointment

  • No tengo cita previa, pero ¿puedo conseguir una consulta? = I don’t have an appointment, but can I get a consultation?

  • Mis síntomas son… = My symptoms are…

2.) Be clear with what you are feeling:

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 have varying effectiveness depending on the capacity of the office and whether you use the private or public health care system. No matter what you are trying to book, by clearing figuring what you are feeling and what you want to tell the doctor will help you with the appointment.

3.) Prepare in advance:

After years of living in Spain, we still review the vocabulary we 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?” We know that it might feel embarrassing to do this kind of thing but you should know that you are not alone. We truly believe that part of having a successful doctor’s experience is knowing the vocabulary you need and sometimes the way to figure that out is to ask for help!

In addition, if you don’t feel totally comfortable speaking Spanish to explain your situation, we recommend asking a friend, colleague, program leader, or host family member to go with you. While many doctors do speak some English, they may not be comfortable communicating in another language either, so it is reasonable for you to bring along an informal translator as well. If you don’t have anyone who can go with you to the doctor’s on that specific day, you can request a translator from most hospitals as well.

  • Picar = To itch

  • Tener asma = To have asthma

  • Tener una alergia = To have an allergy

  • Tener una reacción alérgica = To have an allergic reaction

  • Tener diabetes = To have diabetes

  • Estar resfriado = To have a cold

  • Tener gripe = To have the flu

  • Estar herida = To be injured

  • Tener otitis = To have an ear infection

  • Estar embarazada = To be pregnant (not a symptom or illness, but useful to know!)

Some general symptoms or illnesses include:

  • Estar inflamado = To be swollen

  • Estar sensible = To be sensitive

  • Tener dolor = To be in pain

  • Tener dolor de barriga = To have a stomachache

  • Tener dolor de cabeza = To have a headache

  • Tener una quemadura = To have a burn

  • Estar quemado = To be burnt

  • Tener una fiebre = To have a fever

  • Tener una tos = To have a cough

  • Estar mareado = To feel dizzy

  • Vomitar = To vomit

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 if we think we know what the doctor is trying to say, repeating or “parroting back” what you have understood will help you ensure that you are on the same page. We understand that you might be worried about looking like a silly foreigner but this is about more than that. Besides, doctors are used to people asking questions or being unsure about things in normal circumstances as well!

In addition, if the doctor writes you any prescriptions or refers you to a specialist or tells you to take a specific action, you can write it all down. Even if you have it written in Spanish, this will help you remember what the doctor said, you won’t make mistakes when explaining it to a pharmacist or another doctor, and you can always refer back to your notes. In our experience, most medical professionals in Spain are kind and caring and will happily spend an extra minute or two to ensure that you understand what is being said and help you write it down.

Some of the things you might hear include:

  • Una pastilla = A pill

  • Un antibiótico = An antibiotic

  • Un antiinflamatorio = An anti-inflammatory

  • Una receta = A prescription

5.) Don’t be alarmed if they send you to the hospital:

In Spain, it is quite normal to go to the hospital or emergency (urgencias) whether or not you actually have a real emergency. Hospitals are used for any sort of specific test or something that the normal family doctor doesn’t have in his or her office. You should keep in mind, however, that if you use public health care, you might have to wait to be treated, either sitting and waiting your turn or be given an appointment for a future date.

Even 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.

6.) Sometimes you don’t even have to go to the doctor’s:

Now, if you’re like us, 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, we would recommend stopping first at 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.

In addition, unless the pharmacy is packed, your local pharmacist will probably have a bit more time to go through the details of what you need. They will help you search out different types of remedies for what you are feeling and will be very willing to support you if you are looking for more natural options as well. We still recommend, however, that you go prepared and have a list of the translated words in case your pharmacist doesn’t speak English!



  • Leroy

    You should add ‘copago’ to your vocab list. Those who haven’t had private insurance before won’t understand the concept.

    Basically every reasonably priced private health insurance package has a ‘copago’ which is a fixed amount that you have to pay for every visit/instance of using the service. You pay that on top of your monthly/annual premium.

    For example, your 60 euros a month health insurance might sound great, and it is reasonably good value, but you might have a copago of 12 euros. Which means that say you visit the doctor (€12), they tell you to see how you are in a few days, and then return if you’re not better in a week, you return (€12), then they send you on another day to do some tests (€12). You speak by a video-doctor service a few weeks later to check on a potential side-effect (€12, even though it lasted 3 minutes). So that’s €48 euros extra that month.

    If you’re young and don’t need to use the service most years, then that’s not a huge issue, but if you’re a hypochondriac and need to have a chat with the doctor most months, then you might be better off paying a bit more for a lower copago!

    • Sincerely, Spain

      Thanks so much for adding this Leroy! ‘Copago’ is a very important thing to keep in mind when using private insurance and your explanation of how it works is wonderful! This should also be a reminder to everyone to read the fine print when agreeing to any sort of medical insurance plan to make sure it is something that fits their needs!

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