The expat’s healthcare guide to Germany
To help get you started, we’ve put together a quick introduction guide to some of the basics to think about when trying to navigate healthcare in Germany.
Finding a doctor
You should figure out what doctor to go to before you actually need to see a doctor. Luckily this isn’t too hard - every doctor in Germany is listed in the local phone directory (Gelbe Seiten) under Ärzte, so this could be your starting point.
If you have an international health plan such as Cigna Global, your insurance company may be able to help you find a doctor who speaks your language – just get in touch with their 24/7 customer service.
Naturally you can also find a doctor online – multiple websites list doctors according to their location or their specialty. This website is searchable in English as well. If you do speak German, websites like DocInsider offer ratings and rankings by other patients. Often, however, the best references come from word of mouth - so just ask a friend, neighbor, or colleague.
Other good sources are the university clinics (Kliniken) in major cities that provide outpatient services in addition to hospitalization. These clinics are usually staffed by highly skilled doctors who often speak English. You could also contact your embassy or consulate for a list of doctors who speak English or your native language.
The opening hours at doctor’s offices vary greatly. Many offices are closed on Wednesday afternoons, so it’s best to call before you visit and make an appointment.
If you need medical assistance outside of normal doctor office visiting hours, you have a couple of options.
If it’s not terribly urgent, but you still can’t wait until the doctor’s office opens, you can take advantage of the Ärztlicher Bereitschaftsdienst (Medical Emergency Service). This is a GP who is on call to handle emergencies after normal office hours. You can reach the service anywhere in Germany by dialing 116 117.4
You could also try calling your regular doctor. If they’re unavailable, the recording on their answering machine might give you the number of a nearby emergency doctor.
In more urgent scenarios, you look up the section called Ärztlicher Notdienst or Ärztlicher Bereitschaftsdienst in your local newspaper. It lists all physicians on stand-by for emergency duty, numbers of emergency hotlines, and pharmacies with 24/7 service.
And if there’s not time for that, take a taxi to the nearest emergency room (Notaufnahme) or call 112 or 19222 for an ambulance.
Call '112' for high emergency cases (think life-threatening cases) and call '116 117' for all other emergencies. Both numbers work 24/7.
Most people have a Hausarzt or Allgemeinarzt (general doctor) as their family doctor, who will make referrals to a specialist if necessary. Most specialists require a referral, called an Überweisung, so don’t just call up any specialist and expect to receive an appointment out of the blue.
Pharmacies (Apotheke) are often open as late as 8pm during the week, and may have earlier closing times on Saturdays. They are always closed on Sundays and public holidays, but there will always be at least one in each city/region that provides out-of- hours service. Look for a notice in the window of any pharmacy to find out which pharmacy is on duty, or alternatively, find the addresses in your local newspaper in the section “Apotheken-Notdienst” (pharmacy emergency service).
You can also find contact information on the pharmacy emergency service online.
Unlike in countries such as the USA or UK, large drugstore chains do not exist in Germany. In fact, a “drug store” in Germany (Drogerie) sells toiletries and other consumer items, but not medicines.
However, you can purchase over-the- counter basic medication, such as cough syrup, cold medicine, throat lozenges and nose spray at stores like Rossmann and dm (drogerie markt).
You can only receive prescription medication if you have a written prescription from your doctor - the Medical Products Act in Germany is quite strict.
If you have private insurance and your prescriptions are covered, make sure to save a copy of the prescription and a stamp - this will allow you to be reimbursed. You pay for the medicine yourself in the first instance but just send the copy of the prescription and the payment receipt to your insurer and you’ll be reimbursed within a few weeks.
Alright, so how do you pay for it all?
If you have German health insurance, your insurance company will give you a plastic ID card (Krankenversicherungskarte) which you need with you when you visit a doctor. This card contains a chip with your personal data, which the doctor's secretary will screen on your first visit. Statutory health insurance accreditation (Kassenzulassung) means that costs will always be covered by the insurer.
Generally you have to figure out health insurance, and prove you’re covered, before you get a residence permit in Germany. Many people simply have the state health insurance, while others opt for private global health insurance such as Cigna Global. Hospitals in Germany can be quite expensive, so private health insurance can be a great net to fall back on.
If you are state-insured, the doctor will send his bill directly to your insurance company. If you have private insurance, you’ll usually pay the full price up front for both visits and prescriptions, and send the receipts to your insurer for reimbursement.
Note that some doctors only treat privately insured clients. Of course that’s not a problem if you already have an international health plan such as Cigna. But if you have state insurance, make sure you check this when making an appointment. Doctors who accept state payments generally display a sign - Kassenarzt or Alle Kassen in their office. If you're treated by anyone other than a Kassenarzt, the state insurance system will not reimburse you.
All emergency expenses are automatically covered by your public health insurance in Germany. If you’re a member of public health insurance you don't need to pay anything, whether you go to hospital or call the ambulance.
Things to keep in mind
Any time you go to a hospital or see a doctor, make sure to bring your health insurance card.
Make copies of your bills, for visits and surgeries, particularly if you have private insurance and need to send them off for reimbursement. Exactly how long you wait for reimbursement can vary but it’s usually one to three weeks.
Participating in a global private health insurance plan, like that offered by Cigna Global, who specialise in healthcare for expats, ensures you are covered at every level, while having maximum flexibility.
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