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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?

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