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Navigating the Italian Health System

One of the big questions people who plan to move to Italy have is: what's the Italian health system like?

I can only speak for the Calabrian health system, which, in all honesty, I've heard is worse than in other parts of the country. But what do you expect? A small town like Soverato (or the many tiny villages of Calabria) won't have the resources that a city like Rome will.

italian health system

Still, it's not all bad here. I'd like to share my experiences in Calabria with you.

Getting the Tessera Sanitaria

As a resident of Italy, you are entitled to get a tessera sanitaria, which is a public medical health card. You may or may not have to pay for it, depending on your visa. I didn't have to pay anything.

With this card, you can select your medico di base (primary care doctor). If you know anyone where you move, ask them who to pick because Italians have lots of opinions about who is the best (and worst) doctor in town!

You can see your medico for free. For other specialist doctors, you'll have to pay a modest fee. You'll also have to pay for bloodwork and analyses.

Public vs. Private Italian Health Systems

One of the drawbacks of the public health system is that it can sometimes take a while to get an appointment. In the event that you need an analysis like an ultrasound or MRI and you are too worried to wait several months, you can also go private.

I'm currently experimenting with a mix of public and private care. In Soverato, there is an imaging facility that can schedule appointments within a matter of days, so I've gone there for a few tests. I do, of course, have to pay more than I would if I went through the public system.

Here are some prices for private imaging services in Calabriahealth system:

  • Mammogram: €90

  • Ultrasound (any body part): €70

  • MRI: €300

Yes, these prices are high for Calabrians, but I look at it like it's still cheaper than the $380 a month I was paying in the US for self-employed health insurance!

For public services, some prices:

  • Gynecologist visit: €20

  • Endocrinologist visit: €20

  • Bloodwork: €40

I can't speak to what it's like to have an emergency, though the hospital has an emergency room, so I think it's a pretty similar process to what Americans are used to.

How to Make a Medical Appointment

I thought I'd include this section because we expats take it for granted the process for making a doctor's appointment is one we're familiar with. Not so!

If you're making an appointment for public health services, you'll go to either the hospital or your nearest Azienda Sanitaria Provinciale. Bring your tessera sanitaria and if you have a ricetta or impegnativa, bring those. These are prescriptions or orders from your doctor for the service you need (bloodwork, exam).

You'll need to find the ufficio accetazione e riscossione ticket, which is the office where you make the appointment and pay for it.

Usually, there's a ticket machine in the waiting room, but be prepared for it not to work or for it to have run out of numbers (IKR?). In Soverato, the earlier you go, the more likely it is you'll get a number and have to wait. After that, it's a bit chaotic as everyone in the waiting room will get into a discussion about who the last person in line was so you know who to go after. I digress.

When it's your turn, you go to the office, desk, or kiosk, with your ricetta and tessera sanitaria and ask to make an appointment. If the soonest available is far out and you're really worried, play on the person's sympathies to see if you can get an emergency appointment. Be nice to them and you might just succeed!

You have the option to pay then, which I recommend, otherwise you have to return and wait to do it later.

Because I'm OCD about new experiences in Italy, I recommend scouting out the office where you'll have the appointment in advance, especially if it's in a hospital with lots of offices. It's just one less unknown, which helps when you're navigating a health system in another country!

A Few Pointers

Again, I can only speak to the Calabrian health system and my specific experiences. But I'll say: in Calabria, don't expect a doctor to speak English. If you aren't confident in your Italian (or your medical terminology), bring someone to translate.

One thing I love about the system here is that doctors are usually available via WhatsApp. So you can text your doctor a quick question rather than scheduling an appointment! I've never had that in the US!

Be prepared to wait. I go into a medical office expecting to wait an hour. I bring something to read. If it's less than that, hooray. One time I went to my doctor without an appointment because she had an open period that was first come, first served. I waited three hours! But I needed an answer, so I waited.

Let go of your American expectations. The doctor's offices aren't fancy with magazines and Muzak. Sometimes they're pretty shoddy. But the service is still, in my mind, great. They even do some things we don't in the US, like a routine ultrasound at the gynecologist's office. They were horrified that we don't do them (or I've never had one) in the US!

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