How to be ill in Czechland: some tips on negotiating the healthcare system in the Czech Republic

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You wake up feeling poorly.  A bit under the weather. Hot and sweaty and then cold and shivery. Taking your temperature confirms your suspicions.  It’s 38.6C, so that means you’re officially running a fever.  What do you do?

In England: Pull the covers back over your head, take a couple of paracetamol, drink vast amounts of water.  Do not dare to darken the door of your doctor’s surgery for fear of being laughed out of there for wasting his time and placing a further unnecessary burden on an already overstretched National Health Service.

In Czechland:  Attempt the above, only to be yelled at by your (admittedly concerned) Czechman until you promise that you’ll go and present yourself at the doctor’s to be checked out immediately.  And while use of paracetamol is permitted, as this is a real medical problem (rather than just having a bit of a headache), they are very strictly rationed.  And we know how the Czechs like to economise on things.

So, off you go to your Czech doctor’s surgery.  Here are some things you should bear in mind:

1.  Do you have your medical insurance card?  The little blue credit card sized thing that you received in the post a few months ago and then shoved in the back of a drawer?  Good.  Pop it in your wallet before you leave home like a hodná holka: the doctor won’t see you without it.

2. Do you have your thirty crowns?  Preferably in change?  This is one situation where the nurse would have a right to be cross if you tried to present them with a 1000kc note. 

Apparently this small charge (equivalent to about one pound sterling) was introduced a number of years ago to deter hypochondriacs and little lonely old ladies from clogging up the doctor’s valuable consulting time.  I hope the little old ladies found someone else to talk to.  Hypochondriacs can always fill up their time checking out symptoms for their imaginary ailments on the internet.

3. Doctors here in Czechland usually don’t have a receptionist.  First, this means that if you suddenly get sick, you don’t need to ring first and try to get an emergency appointment like in the UK.  It also means that when you arrive, you walk straight into the waiting room where you are greeted only by other sick people – don’t forget to dobry den them – and a locked door. There’s no need to be disconcerted by this. Just take a seat and wait for the nurse to come out and then wave your blue plastic card at her. 

4. Take something to read.  You’re probably in for a long wait.  No change there then.  Sometimes I wondered why my GP practice in England bothered giving me an appointment time at all.

5. You should shake hands with the doctor.  At least, I think so.  It does no harm to remember that everything’s more formal here, so you should definitely adddress your healthcare professional as ‘Pane Doktoře’ (Mr Doctor).  And don’t forget to give him a bottle of vodka, just to show your appreciation for his assistance. 

6. Prepare to be poked and prodded. A lot. The Czechs like to be thorough.  You may well end up having lots of tests – which is good, I suppose – many of which you really didn’t need.  Still, it’s always useful to know that you’re not about to die of smallpox, even if smallpox was officially eradicated in 1972.

Often when people ask myself or Czechman if I like it here in Prague, they are frankly astounded when I tell them that I’m actually happier here than I was in the UK.  How can that be?  Surely everything in the West is bigger, brighter, shiner, better? 

Not necessarily.  All I will add at this point is that Daily Mail cliche, ‘postcode lottery’ and my English readers will know what I mean.

The observant among you are probably wondering about the bottle of vodka.  I mentioned it only because I was amused to see one on my consultant’s desk this morning – unopened and therefore presumably a gift from a previous patient. Do I need to bribe the staff with hardcore liquor to ensure top-quality treatment behind the former Iron Curtain?

23 Comments

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23 Responses to How to be ill in Czechland: some tips on negotiating the healthcare system in the Czech Republic

  1. Vodka hardcore liquor? Not really. But Slivovice (domácí!, home made) is accepted with much more gratitude. But to your question. No, it is not necessary to bribe doctors here anymore (at least not in Prague). Some old-schoolers might be still used to it and it definitely does not hurt to be a lawyer, tax-advisor of fellow doctor or to be old friends with your GP. I never bribe, out of principle, but hey, I do not go to GP (I just don’t!) and my dentist is almost family friend (cos we have good tax-advisers and lawyers in family ;).

    • How I wish you had written this last year before I had my first experience with the doctor. The whole procedure is way different from what I was used to in the U.S. You’ve got some great pointers.

      One difference is that my health card is green, not blue, because I’m not an EU citizen.

      http://chrisinbrnocr.blogspot.com/2009/12/1st-medical-experience.html

      • girlinczechland

        It’s *is* very different. I’m so used to having to go and report to a desk and I find just hanging around in the hope someone will appear very odd. And if you knock on the locked door to announce your presence, you look pushy – other patients have told me off for doing this until I explained I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place or not. Ah, the joys of cultural differences! I should say again though that the vast majority of the healthcare I’ve had here though has been very good indeed. Who said everything was better in the big bright shiny West (don’t speak too soon…)?
        GIC

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Honza,
      To be honest, it may well have been sliovice, I didn’t get a really clear look at the label, although it certainly wasn’t homemade as the bottle had a seal. And I didn’t seriously think it was common to bribe doctors here with booze – just thought I’d get some humour out of playing on some of those Western stereotypes about The East (i.e there’s little difference between being here and in Russia…)
      GIC

  2. “There’s no need to be disconcerted by this. Just take a seat and wait for the nurse to come out and then wave your blue plastic card at her.”

    Haha, this one is so true!! The hours of initial Kafka-esque consternation this caused me in the early days…

    • girlinczechland

      It’s weird, isn’t it? There should be at least three women behind a desk comparing their false nails and talking about where they’re off to on holiday/the new car their boyfriend bought them while waiting for you to bugger off… Or at least that was the way it used to work in Hackney…
      GIC

  3. Hi GIC,

    Loved the post not least because, for the first time in two years of living here, I fear I do need to find a GP who speaks English and go & see him/her.

    However, I have a technical problem. Ever since you jazzed up your blog with massive background pictures of kniting, opening you website causes my poor ancient computer to freeze because it cannot cope with the size of the file. And even when, after a couple of minutes, the cursor once more reluctantly moves, I find that a lot of your text in the sidebar is illegible because it gets lost in the background photo. Am I alone with these problems?

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Ricky,

      I’ve been playing around with the blog format recently and decided after your comment to ditch the Guerilla Knitting pic so that everything’s easier to read. Hope that helps…

      GIC

      • Hi GIC,

        Just re-visited to see if you had replied & the site loaded instantly! And yes – the sidebar is also now legible! Thank you! Please keep blogging – like your various other commentators, I enjoy your expat observations enormously.

  4. Gormie

    Nice post!

    What about mushroom hunting? That would be also a nice topic for a an arcticle.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Gormie,

      Mushroom picking is a great idea for a post and I was actually out in the forest filling up an Albert carrier bag with the things for most of this morning… I need to buy a basket if I really want to blend in. Anyway, watch this space, a mushroom picking special will be on its way soon.

      Does anyone have any good ideas for recipes they’d like to share? Czechman’s family tend to opt for the frying in breadcrumbs option (tasty) or drying them and then using them in soups (also pretty darn flavoursome).

      GIC

  5. You forgot about the blood bit. They love taking blood here, not really sure why, just keeps them busy I suppose.

    ha ha! I’m back!

  6. Hi GIC,

    I’m new to your website, but have to say some of your comments are just hillarious and it is interesting too, to be finding out what the English think of our country 😉 I have lived in London for over 2 years with my husband (both from Czech originally) and I had kept a similar kind of diary for my friends and family back home. It is fun comparing the two 😉

    Keep on wiriting.

    Cheers,
    Lucie

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Lucie,

      Thanks for your kind comments and glad you’re enjoying the blog. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t simply a load of old rubbish so positive feedback is always welcome.
      Was your own diary online? If so, can you leave a link to it?

      GIC

  7. AZA

    Hi,

    its not “pane doktoře” but “pane doktor”.And a bottle of alcohol really isnt necessary :)…

    • girlinczechland

      Greetings AZA,

      Thanks for the cesky related correction and I’m glad to hear a bottle of vodka isn’t necessary – although I’m sure there are some members of the Czech medical profession who would appreciate such a gift 😉

      GIC

      • Sarka

        It’s not even ‘pane doktor’ but ‘pane doktore’ 🙂 ‘Pane doktor’ sounds very informal. I would say that older people especially pensioners are used to bribing doctors. We, younger generations, are more self-confident in this case.
        And when I go to visit my doctors I usually ask other people waiting ‘Kdo je poslední?’ (‘Who is the last one?’) To know after who will be my turn to go inside a surgery. I think it’s quite common and useful.

      • girlinczechland

        Hello Sarka,
        Thanks for sharing this handy phrase. These are the kind of things that are never in the textbooks but are super useful – and that Czechman just shakes his head and mumbles ‘I don’t know’ when I ask him what I should say…
        Here’s a question for the Czechs out there: how would you translate ‘Did you have a nice time (i.e on holiday, on your birthday, at the party…)? Czechman claims the best equivalent is ‘Byl tam zabava?’
        GIC

      • Ondřej

        I don’t think “Byla tam zábava” is the best equivalent, since “zábava” is really when you describe some fun activity, not enjoying something in general.

        I’d say “Jaké to bylo?” (What was it like?), “Bylo to dobré?” (Was it good there?) or “Měli jste se dobře?” (Did you [plural] enjoy it?)

      • Hynek

        How to translate “Did you have a nice time?”:

        On holiday: Jak ses měl/měla? Jak se ti tam líbilo? I wouldn’t ask anyone “Byla tam zábava?” if I was talking about holiday.

        At the party: “Byla tam zábava?” is OK. Or: Jak ses bavil/a? Jaký to bylo?

      • Petr_Z

        Hi, GIC

        I’ll try answer your question how translate this , “Did you have a nice time (i.e on holiday, on your birthday, at the party…)?” I would probably translate it like “Líbila se Vám ta oslava/party?” if we are talking about some kind of birthday party or “Měli jste se hezky na dovolené/výletu?” for holiday or trips. Maybe it’s not exactly the same phrases but you can use it for common chat with no worry. By the way my mum is working as a nurse on the policlinic (health center) in Olomouc, that “bribe” you are refering isn’t in 95% mean like that and definitely isn’t it a usual thing. Sometimes some patients bring a flowers,chocolate or home made jam like expression thanks for a nice behavior, nothing less nothing more… I do not speak for all doctors and medical personal , there are certainly many peoples who without blink take a bribe or other form compensation for their services. I just want to say, don’t worry there isn’t here any unwritten rule or something like that. I want to apologize in advance if I did eventually some blunders in the text, my english isn’t perfect 😀

        Have a nice day

        Petr_Z

  8. Ondřej

    As for the bribe thing — my dad is pretty busy, so he reschedules his appointments (not at a hospital, but a special medical center) quite regularly and without all the flowers and chocolates, he probably wouldn’t get away with it 🙂 So sometimes it is a bribe, though not for a specific action, but to get ‘special treatment’.

  9. Ondrej

    Just to point one thing out , those useless tests you’re talking about are at least much better then be given paracetamol for any kind of problem , also if you look at the statistics deaths by wrong examination is much higher in UK then in middle Europe countries . Thanks for useless tests and poking !

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