Going to the doctor in France is a rite of passage we all go through. You go from being a confused foreigner, having no clue about what to expect, to this evolved master of knowing how things are done in France and handling them like a boss. Well, that’s the hope anyway. In this post, I’m giving you some insight into the differences you might encounter upon going to a doctor in France. That way, if you find yourself sick in France in need of medical attention, you know what to expect and will be prepared.
French healthcare differences: Culture shocks about going to the doctor in France
I’ve written about going to the gynecologist in France, told you about what French pharmacies are like, and even recounted a really bad experience I had, but what I’d like to do below is share what has surprised me the most about going to the doctor in France. Things are done differently in the USA! To that end, here are my top culture shocks/surprises/differences to be aware of before you show up for your rendez-vous chez le médecin en France.
My disclaimer is that what follows is my experience and of course not every single doctor in every single town in France does things the way I’ve described. There are always exceptions. Overall, what I talk about below rings true in most cases and I hope my observations help you in case you’re ever sick in France or need to see a doctor.
Culture shock at the doctor in France
The price. In France, a visit to your French general practitioner will run you 25 € and that fee is standardized nationwide. You pay that in person at the end of the visit directly to the doctor. One thing to note is that not all offices are equipped to take bank cards so have cash or a check on hand just in case. If you have a carte vitale (health insurance card), you’ll be reimbursed about 70% through the sécu and even more if you have supplementary insurance, which is called a mutuelle.
If you’re a tourist in France, you’d still pay the 25 € (just without reimbursement since you don’t live here and pay into the system). Keep in mind that specialists cost more (and even more beyond the standardized rates if they are non-conventionée) but even still, costs are clearly outlined. In the US, it was always a guessing game trying to figure out what the doctor’s visit would cost, if insurance would cover it and if I was supposed to just pay my co-pay, or if I’d get a big bill later on. Even for blood work in France, labs can tell you what each test will cost upfront.
The waiting room. Doctors’ waiting rooms in France tend to be very simple with chairs lined up against the wall in a way that allows everyone in the waiting room to see who comes into the room. When you arrive, greet everyone in the waiting room with a bonjour and then take a seat. Do not just go and sit down without acknowledging the people already in the room. Politeness is huge and a bonjour is a must.
The doctor will personally come to the waiting room and call your name when it’s your turn. Something that’s different is that most GPs work alone (aside from a secretary in some cases) so you won’t be greeted by a nurse who first checks your vitals or gets your history before seeing the doctor.
Be aware that French GPs don’t generally wear white doctors’ coats and are instead dressed in regular clothes. Don’t do what I did and ask, “Hi, wait, are you the doctor,” unsure of who the casual man was calling my name. In my defense, it was my first medical appointment in France ever and I didn’t realize that the doctor would be dressed down in jeans with his shirt unbuttoned and chest hair poking out of the top of his polo. But still. Assume the person who gets you from the waiting room is the doctor and act accordingly.
No nurse present during exams. This one majorly caught me off-guard the first time I saw the gynecologist. It was just the doctor and me alone in an exam room. It made me uneasy because if anything strange happened, it would be my word against the doctor’s. I got very comfortable in the USA knowing there was always a third party present at my gynecologist — for the doctor’s protection and my own! FYI, doctors in the USA have huge medical malpractice insurance policies because we’re the most litigious society in the world. Anyway, it always put me at ease having a third party present during exams. A third party is present at many gynecologists in the USA, not all but it’s common. Not so in France.
Nudity. Sticking with the gynecologist for a moment and adding to the unease is my next point. Let’s move on to how the exam is conducted. I was majorly surprised when it was time for my pelvic exam and the doctor didn’t leave the room for me to undress privately, nor did she give me a paper gown or covering of any kind to drape over myself during the exam. Lying there butt naked, except for my socks, on an exam table was not what I expected at all and made an awkward exam even less pleasant. Medical nudity in France is definitely a thing.
In addition to the gynecologist, when I first arrived in France, you’re required to get a chest x-ray. During that appointment, I was paraded through the back area of the imaging center completely topless — no gown or covering while going from one room to the next. The other doctors and techs probably didn’t even notice, but I felt exposed. Just something to note so you know what to expect. Bring a sweater you can easily put around your shoulders if this would be off-putting to you or you’re easily cold.
To be clear, nudity in general is not a problem so please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m not prude and am not embarrassed by my own nudity, nor am I embarrassed when I see others naked. It’s not that at all and of course doctors need to see you without clothes to properly examine you in some instances.
My issues are: 1) I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t expecting to strip down completely without a gown while the doctor was right there, which caught me off-guard, 2) I didn’t realize it would be just me and the doctor (no nurse) which adds a level of anxiety if you’re coming from a medical system that has a third party present for both the doctor and patient’s comfort and protection, and 3) When the doctor is in a position of power and control, the nudity creates an even greater power differential.
It can be a little bit awkward to be there butt naked with no sense of modesty granted by even a paper sheet or gown. It’s the vulnerability aspect that caught me by surprise. If the doctor can do something to make the patient more comfortable, then we should speak up (nudity related or otherwise). As I said, now I bring a shawl just in case.
Sometimes you’ll pick up your own vaccine or other prescription for a medical appointment. My advice here is to always read everything on your prescription because it might not be what you expect. I looked briefly at a prescription for blood work from my ophthalmologist that I needed to get before my next visit. I went to the lab, got my blood work, and printed out the results. No problem there.
What I completely overlooked was the part underneath that required me to go to the pharmacy to get special drops to dilate my pupils before an eye test at my next appointment. In the USA, whenever the ophthalmologist would dilate my pupils, he or she would have the drops on hand and it wasn’t something I needed to bring with me. Well, not so in France. Lesson learned!
Another example is when I had an MRI with contrast, I was asked to go to the pharmacy to pick up the pack of contrast dye and tubing used for the scan. The imaging center doesn’t keep that on hand. The patient needs to pick it up themselves ahead of time.
On the other hand, when I got my yellow fever vaccine for work travel outside of France, the vaccine center (handled by a special service, not my regular doctor) already had the vaccine in their office. But in the case of other routine vaccines, you, the patient, will be expected to go into your local pharmacy and physically pick up the vaccine that you will then bring to your appointment for the doctor to inject. GPs don’t have vaccines on hand in the office.
Urgent care centers. In the US, it’s quite common to see for-profit franchises, usually privately owned urgent care centers in strip malls and office complexes. They usually have convenient hours, are staffed by emergency medicine doctors, and are perfect for when you need to see a doctor for something more pressing than a cold not but necessarily a full-blown emergency. They have x-ray machines and other equipment your regular GP wouldn’t have but aren’t an emergency room either.
France doesn’t have urgent care centers like this. To clarify, yes, France absolutely has hospitals with emergency rooms and trauma centers for those of us who need that sort of care. What I’m talking about are the urgent care walk-in centers you find in many areas of the US that provide ambulatory care outside of traditional ERs.
Wait times. Depending on where you live and the demand, it can sometimes be difficult as a new patient to get a non-emergency appointment with a specialist such as a dermatologist or a dentist in France. A 3- to 6-month wait is normal in my area. I know this can be the case in the USA as well and certainly isn’t a France-specific phenomenon, but I was secretly hoping things would run perfectly here, given how much people rave about French healthcare. I’m now one of the ravers, but the French healthcare system is not without its flaws, and doctors’ wait times aren’t one of the highlights for me. It can be looooong.
SOS Médecins. There’s this great service in France called SOS Médecins. It’s a network of doctors who do house calls — 24/7 and even on holidays. How amazing is that? If you are too ill to leave your home and/or it’s 3 a.m., most cities have an SOS Médecins network that can really be, quite literally, a lifesaver. Basically, a GP in their network can provide “general medical, emergency and out-of-hours visits and those for continuity of care, at your home, at your workplace or even if your GP is away.”
Yes, it’s more expensive than the regular office visit of 25 €, but much of it is reimbursed and is worth the extra money for the comfort and privacy factor. To give you an idea of cost, in the Paris area if you call between midnight and 6 a.m., it’s 84.50 €.
What differences would you add to my list about going to the doctor in France?