You’re in France, and you feel ill. Maybe you ate a bad escargot, or maybe you fell down the stairs at Château de Versailles and sprang your ankle. Either way, you need to see a doctor; what do you do? Here’s everything you need to know to get the help you need for what ails you if you ever find yourself in need of medical attention while in France.
****Updated in 2020: A few things have changed since I first wrote this back in 2012.
What Do You Do If You’re Sick and Confused In France?
When we arrived in France back in 2011, the challenge of figuring out how to navigate our new life was fun and exciting.
Then my husband got sick. It was the kind of sick that leaves you flat on your back, and we weren’t prepared.
We had no idea how the French system worked or how to get the medical help we needed, adding an extra layer of stress to an already stressful situation.
We had so many questions!
- Do we go to a hospital?
- How do we find a doctor’s office?
- Do we call a doctor and make an appointment or just walk in?
- Will our travel insurance cover our visit?
- How much will it cost?
And on and on and on. We eventually figured it all out.
Here’s what you need to do if you find yourself needing medical care or a doctor in France.
Dial 15 for medical emergencies or to call an ambulance in France.
15 is the number for (SAMU) Service d’Aide Médicale Urgente, which means “Urgent Medical Aid Service.”
What to expect when you call SAMU
When you call SAMU, you’ll be put through to a team; usually, physicians and assistants trained to prioritize a patients’ treatments by the severity of their condition.
They will usually do one of three things:
1 ) Direct you to go to a nearby clinic, hospital or pharmacy.
2 ) Offer care and advice over the telephone.
3 ) Dispatch an ambulance or a non-transport emergency response vehicle. (EMS)
- Only about 65% of calls to SAMU result in an ambulance being sent. (Source)
- Response vehicles come in all shapes and sizes. They are sent to non-emergency and low-priority calls and can treat you on the spot or call for more support.
Here are the other important French emergency numbers you need to know when travelling in France and the EU.
Start At The Pharmacy
As the old saying goes, all roads lead to Rome. There’s more than one way to get the medical help you need.
Unless you’re bleeding from your eyeballs or mortally wounded, consider going to a pharmacy to speak with a French pharmacist who may be able to prescribe something for you immediately. This includes simple, non-emergency issues such as stomach aches, stuffy nose, achy joints etc.
Pharmacists in France have years of extensive training and are qualified to diagnose and give out general medical advice beyond what a pharmacist in the US or Canada is qualified to do. For example, pharmacists in France are trained to diagnose mushroom poisoning and can even help you identify if those wild Mushrooms you picked in the forest are poisonous.
How to find a pharmacy
Pharmacies are easy to find and abundant in France; look for the green cross, often lit up or blinking. However, If you’re in a small town there’s a slight chance you may not be able to find a pharmacy because only towns with more than 2500 inhabitants are allowed to have pharmacies. (source).
How to make an appointment or find an English speaking doctor in France
In France, doctors’ offices are usually private practices, often located in converted apartment buildings. I found this very confusing when I first arrived in France because they often blend with other local businesses.
For example, in the image below, the big green doors are the front door to a General Practitioner in Montpellier, France. Located to the left of the door is a small gold sign with the doctor’s name.
From my physical therapist and dentist to my general practitioner and gynecologist, DoctoLib is an online portal that lets you search for doctors based on your location and make a doctor’s appointment.
Doctorlib is also my goto website for making an appointment with my doctors.
If you need to find an English speaking doctor, Chinese speaking doctor or Spanish speaking doctor, you can filter by language spoken to find doctors that speak your language.
For instance, in the screenshot below, I selected from the drop-down menu “Langues parlées,” which means language spoken. Then choose “Anglais.” to find doctors that speak English. Don’t forget to choose the type of doctor you would like to see.
It’s free to use the site; however, you’ll have to create an account before you can finalize your Rendez-Vous. And the site is in French, so you’ll need to be able to at least read a little French to use the site.
Depending on the type of doctor you need to see and your location, you may be able to get a doctor’s appointment that same day or same week. However, some specialists like dermatologists and eye doctors may not have openings for months.
Five more ways you can find a doctor in France
1) French hotel concierge: or landlord
If you’re staying in a hotel, ask the concierge for help finding or recommending a doctor. If you’re staying in a rental, such as Airbnb, call the owners to see if they can recommend someone.
2) Tourism Office:
Find the nearest tourist office and ask them for a list of doctors.
3) Ask a pharmacist or shop owners:
Pharmacies are everywhere in France and are very knowledgeable about local doctors. alternatively, try asking small shop owners along the road. People are more helpful than you realize.
Call your nearest embassy or check their website to see if they have a list of doctors. (sometimes they have them listed by their ability to speak English— but not always).
Type “Find a doctor near me” and start digging through the results.
Some doctors only take walk-ins.
Some doctors clinics take walk-ins, but it’s hard to know which ones do unless someone tells you because it’s not usually advertised. Our first three doctors in France didn’t take appointments, and it was a love-hate relationship.
- The good part is you can walk in and get seen that day.
- The bad part is that it’s a first-come, first-serve system. You could wait for hours before the doctor can see you. It just depends on how many people are ahead of you.
Here’s how it works with walk-in clinics
You show up and walk straight into the doctor’s office. Sometimes there’s a doorbell you have to ring to get buzzed in.
You then walk straight to the waiting area and take a seat. If there are 15 people already sitting in the waiting room, you will have a long wait ahead of you. Sometimes you get lucky, and only two people are waiting.
Either way, you’ll have to wait for someone to come out and ask, “who is next?” It’s on the honour system, so make a mental note of who comes in after you.
How much do doctors visits cost in France?
If you need to see a general practitioner, it will cost about 25€: Bring cash because not all doctors accept credit cards.
How To Get A Prescription Filled
If the doctor gives you a prescription for medication, take it to any pharmacist/chemist.
Tips if you don’t speak French:
Getting sick in France or anywhere while travelling will be stressful, especially if you don’t speak French.
According to our doctor, French doctors usually take some medical classes in English as part of their medical training, but that doesn’t mean you should expect them to speak English fluently. It would be like someone going to an English speaking country and expecting them to speak French, Spanish or Chinese just because they took some language classes in school.
Be prepared to explain your symptoms in case the doctor doesn’t speak English.
- Go to Google, translate and translate your symptoms into French. This is what my husband did when we first arrived in France before he learned to speak French.
- Bring someone who can translate.
- If you have a phone with data, download a speech to speech translator app on your smartphone to translate your words on the fly. I did this in Thailand to communicate with people in a pinch. Try google translate first.
How to say your “Sick” in French and other useful French phrases
Hello, we need to find a doctor urgently. Bonjour, nous avons besoin de voir un médecin au plus vite. C’est urgent.
Hello, I need to make an appointment with the doctor: Bonjour, Je voudrais prendre un rendez-vous avec le médecin.
- Sick: malade –> [mah-lad]
- It hurts here: J’ai mal ici –> [zhay mahl ee-see]
- Doctor: un médecin–> [uhn med-sen]
- (GP) Gernal Practitioner: Médecin généraliste—>[uhn-med-sen zhen-ay-ra-list]
- Doctor clinic/office: le cabinet –>[Luh- Ka-bee-nay] Not to be confused with “les cabinets” a formal way to say WC, toilettes or restrooms.
- Medicine: médicament—> [meh-dee-ca-mon]
- Pharmacie : Une pharmacie –> [oon farm-ah-see]
- Prescription: Une ordinance –> [oon or-dee-nawnse]