Sick Day (In Europe) by Amanda Gonser [Guest Wreckers]

With the cold front we are having in Europe (today its 32º here) and a weekend with friends, I guess I was bound to get sick – I wouldn’t be Amanda if I didn’t.  Working with the kids this year, it seems my immune system is just way off.  I guess with atleast one kid being sick everyday, germs are all around and my little body doesn’t like it much.  So, today here I am in bed with no voice and a super swollen and sore throat.

Being sick though made me think about telling you about being ill here, since it is not something I would wish upon anyone visiting of course!  That’s one of those things you want to read about, not experience firsthand on vacation.  From the doctor to the pharmacy to sick days, it’s quite a great system that is set up for Spanish residents in my opinion (as a sicko today).  The World Health Organization even ranks the Spanish system as the 7th best healthcare system in the world according to NPR.

Spain has a public healthcare system, meaning anyone who pays social security has access to all health benefits.  Employers do not provide insurance policies or anything of the sort for thier employers, and instead each employee pays a sort of social security tax each month that includes health care.  A person in my similar employment level pays about 5% of thier monthly wage towards social security.  While that may seem steep, there are absolutely zero out-of-pocket costs to the patient besides medicine (we will get to that soon).

Each neighborhood has an ‘ambulatorio’ or health center that is open weekdays from morning until mid-evening.  With tons of doctors, you are assigned just one and normally can get an appointment with said doctor in a day or two.  To make an appointment you can either go in, call or make the appointment online (which is normally my go-to).  You can see your doctor as often as you deem neccesary and if you have questions about your treatment or just want to ask a question you can also set up a phone appointment with a nurse.  If need be, a doctor will even come to your home to give you medical attention.  No co-payments, no insurance slips, nothing.

When you go to see your doctor, it’s normally quick and to the point, which is fine with me.  My doctor in my old neighborhood was always so excited to see me, mostly because of my name.  Apparentley, there is a famous Spanish song by a Chilean singer called ‘Amanda’ and he normally sang it to me when I came in.  When you explain your symptoms, the doctor will either give you a prescription right away, order more tests or send you to a specialist.

If you are sent to do some more tests they usually take place the next day.  Blood tests right in the same ambulatorio right along with pee tests.  The results are passed onto your doctor and they call you as soon as they are in with the results.  You can pass your ambulatorio any time after that to obtain a copy for yourself.  As for X-rays, you take the photos, they print out your X-rays and you take them (yes you just carry them around town) to your next appointment, which is usually the day after your screening.

As for prescriptions, there are about as many pharmacies here as fast food restaurants in the States.  One block can have 3 pharmacies! Each is well-spotted with a flashin green cross out front signalling that it is open.  You take your prescription and a couple seconds later they bring your meds out.  Because of the universal healthcare, the prices of prescriptions are incredibly low.  My last cough syrup cost less than 2€.  You can also get ‘the pill’ for something like 3€ per month!  Another surprise to me are the doses that the medicine comes in.  In the States I have never seen Ibeprofuen of more than 200mg for sale.  Here you can’t find smaller than 600mg, and you don’t even need a prescription to buy it.

The downside of the system a lot of people say, and I can agree, is if you do have to see a specialist.  With so many people to serve, there are not even close to as many specialists as doctors – so they are overwhelmed with cases.  To see a dermatologist, gynocologist, etc, your average wait time is atleast 3 months.  For someone who has an urgent problem you might be able to be squeezed in early, but a lot of people then decide to turn to the ‘private’ healthcare system in the country.  Some doctors in the public health system moonlight as private doctors after thier shifts – where they probably make quadruple the money.  With quicker specialist appointments, the private system works much like our system.  You can pay yourself or with the use of an insurance carrier.

Something drastically different from here to home is the care of elder and ill relatives.  There are practically no rest homes or hospice centers here.  The Spanish are very family-oriented and more often than not, take after thier own relatives.  In fact, if your parents get sick, as thier child it becomes your responsibility in the eyes of the State, to take care of them.  Very few people are put into nursing homes and those who are are only there normally because their cases are so severe they cannot be cared for in a home.  But, family and friends regularly stream in and out to visit them.

With the highest life expectancy in the EU (80 for women and 74 for me), Spain seems like it has it all together when it comes to caring for thier own.  Or caring for anyone for that matter.  No one is ever turned away from immediate healthcare – tourists, illegal immigrants, etc.  As tourist from another EU country, you have free healthcare just like a Spaniard and some people use this to thier advantage and come to the country for special operations and such.

So, while I am sick, I can relax knowing that if this little cold turns out to be something much worse, I am covered on all sides.  Healthcare is a constitutional right in this country, and after having it as part of my life, I wouldn’t like to imagine othewise.

Off to take some super strong ibeprofuen and onto a speedy recovery!


Amanda Gonser is an American from Washington State who has been living in Donostia-San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain since 2008.  She teaches English to pre-school aged children when she is not globe trotting across Europe and documenting it all in her brilliant and renowned travel blog, Opportunity Knocks where this story originally appeared on February 9th, 2012.  She is also a guest columnist for The Daily News in Kelso-Longview Washington and Big World Magazine, and

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