Everything you need to know about making a doctor's appointment in Germany
Sooner or later, every international in Germany will have to make a doctor’s appointment. This can be especially challenging if you’re not well acquainted with German, or how Germany’s unique system works.
What’s so special about it?
While many countries require patients to first see a general doctor before being referred to a specialist, it’s often possible to go directly to a specialist in Germany. Yet in some cases, such as getting an MRI scan, a referral (called a Überweisung) from another doctor is required first.
Germany still does have an extensive system of general doctors, or Allgemeinärzte or Hausärzte. These are great for general check-ups, or a general illness such as a flu. These doctors can issue sick notes for your employers if they determine that you should be absent from work for longer than two or three days.
Make you tell the doctor whether you’re privatversichtert (privately insured) or part of a Krankenkasse, such as TK. Doctors aren’t supposed to give preference, though it is said that some practices might be more inclined to accept private patients more quickly, as they can be asked to pay up front until their insurance reimburses them.
In the following funny reenactment of a man trying to make a doctor’s appointment in Germany, he’s told that there are no appointments available for another month. Yet when he says he’s privatversichtert, an appointment is suddenly available right away.
Not feeling well in the morning and need to see a doctor? Most general doctors will allow you to come in the morning (usually around 8 am) to wait to be seen - with the caveat that you could be waiting for a while.
Most doctors, both general doctors and specialists (called Fachärzte) will usually offer Sprechstunden, where you can simply drop in during a two or three hour window. During these times, it’s also first-come, first-served.
To find a doctor and book an appointment online, there are a slew of websites such as Artztermine, Doctena, and Doctolib. The latter two also have useful apps which allow patients to find the field, type of doctor and next available appointment.
You can also simply turn to the local yellow pages (Gelbe Seiten), a directory of all sorts of online businesses in print and online, under the category Ärzte. To read reviews of doctors before choosing one, you can go to websites such as DocInsider and Jameda.de, arguably the largest database in Germany for ratings and rankings.
Keep in mind, though, that the most popular doctors might have long waiting times, and often you can find the service (and convenience) you need at your neighbourhood doctor’s office.
What to ask for
Whether you write or call a doctor, a useful phrase is: Ich möchte einen Termin vereinbaren (I would like to schedule an appointment).
If you need to cancel the appointment, you would say: Ich möchte meinen Termin absagen.
To ask to reschedule it to, say, Wednesday at 2pm you would say “Können wir den Termin auf Mittwoch um 14 Uhr verlegen?”
To describe your sickness, we have a guide of useful terminology to describe your ailments - from the common cold to conditions which are more severe.
If you're able to secure an appointment for a vaccine - which family doctors in Germany have been offering since the beginning of April - we have a guide of useful vocabulary to know.
Doctor’s offices will often have standard business hours. Many, however, will be entirely closed one afternoon a week (usually Wednesday), and sometimes will stay open slightly after-hours (until 7pm for example) one day a week, often on Thursday.
More and more doctors in Germany have been offering online consultations during the pandemic. Doctolib includes a function where you can just search for online appointments.
If you’re not feeling well at night or on the weekend, there are also doctors who make house calls, accepting both public and private patients. Though be warned that, if you fall into the latter camp, you might have to pay a bill of over €100, and (this being Germany) only in cash.
If you’re in an emergency situation, you can call 112 - which many Americans might think of as the equivalent of 911. An ambulance will come to take you to the emergency room (Notaufnahme) nearest hospital (Klinik and Krankenhaus). You can also simply show up at the nearest hospital, though if not a dire case, you might have to wait upwards of a couple hours to be seen.
You can also look for a section called Ärztlicher Notdienst or Ärztlicher Bereitschaftsdienst (emergency calendar) online or in the local newspaper. It lists all physicians on stand-by for emergency duty, numbers of emergency hotlines, and pharmacies with 24/7 service.
What to expect when at the doctor
When you arrive at your appointment for the first time, expect to be given a form to fill out with general information about yourself and your health. Even if you have an appointment time set, there’s a good chance you can be waiting for up to an hour after your scheduled appointment in the waiting room.
It’s also a custom that every other patient in the waiting room will give a polite hello and goodbye - often the less former Tschüss in Berlin and Auf Wiedersehen in small cities.
And it goes without saying that you should stick with the Sie form when addressing your doctor. As a whole, doctors in Germany are more used to their word being the final, and thus may seem more taken aback if you contest what you’re being told. However, if you’d like additional information about your condition, you can still ask directly but politely.
When the appointment ends, expect to stop by the receptionist for additional appointments, prescriptions and - if you’re privately insured - to pay the bill before you're reimbursed by your insurance. Some practices, however, allow the bill to be sent directly to you to pay later.
A few notes of caution
It can be easy to get frustrated trying to make an appointment, especially when you call a doctor’s office to set an appointment and the phone rings and rings (and rings). Or you simply get a voicemail, and the message you leave seems to go unnoticed.
While some practices are quick to get back, I’ve found email to be more effective. Especially if you aren’t fully confident in German, this will allow you to proofread over your email, or simply write it in English.
If you’re running late to an appointment, always call to inform the doctor - though note that if you’re considered too late (at one doctor’s appointment this was considered to be the case after five minutes) you might be asked to cancel the appointment and reschedule.
Also appointments can tend to be quick - no more than 15 minutes - so don’t be surprised if your explanation is cut short before the next patient is ushered in. Usually, however, we have found doctors in Germany to be quite hilfsbereit (helpful), quickly addressing your reason for the visit, and scheduling any follow-up appointments, and filling prescriptions, if necessary.
Conveniently, many doctor practices, including if you are visiting a Facharzt, will have a built-in pharmacy with a slew of products you can buy with or without a Rezept (prescription).