Healthcare in France

Aidan shares her tips on getting to know the French healthcare system

Before we moved to France I had a neat list of worries. At the top, competing with ‘what to do about school’ was how to find a good doctor, what to do when we got sick and how to do it in French.

If you have children you will want to find a general practitioner right away. I looked to the mayor’s office for a list of local physicians. In France you need a doctor’s sign-off for children to attend school or participate in extracurricular activities.

Primary to this search was finding a doctor with a bit of English who would understand and be patient while I tried to express myself in French. This will depend on where you live and if you have a network to point you in the right direction. My doctor speaks conversational English but my lack of French and his lack of English don’t get in the way of our understanding. Don’t be afraid to draw pictures of tonsils or take your dictionary with you to an appointment. Be prepared, and your doctor, if she’s the right one, will be patient.

The French doctor’s appointment is different from in the States. There is a clear distinction between consultation and examination. You enter and greet the doctor with bonjour and are seated opposite a desk. You start out here before moving to the exam table that’s in another part of the room, concealed by a curtain or screen.

I prefer it to the standard American way of plopping you straight down on the exam table, legs dangling, crunching paper sheet twisting beneath your clothes.
At our first family visit we talked about our health concerns and history, asked a few questions like ‘how do I get a vasectomy in France’ (it’s tricky and only legal since 1999!), and were examined, weighed and told to wear sunscreen.

Your French doctor will prescribe a lot of medicines. My doctor writes down the over-the-counter things too, so when I present my shopping list to the pharmacist, she bags it all. This is how I’ve ended up with four boxes of paracetamol suppositories. It’s true about the suppositories, by the way.

The good news is that prescription and over-the-counter medicines are inexpensive. A bottle of kid Tylenol costs around one euro with the health card. None of us have been really sick, nor do we have illnesses that must be managed with medicine, so I can’t speak to those costs.
I have crossed one worry off my list. Our basic health care needs are being met and I know how to navigate the system.

You’ll know if you’re in the right place. Look for help in your community and if you don’t feel happy, don’t be afraid to change doctors or to make a fool of yourself to be understood. What really matters is that you are healthy, not that you mispronounced neck and said ass instead.
Now back to that vasectomy…


Aidan Larson is an American mom of three navigating her way through life in France and writing about it on her blog: Conjugating Irregular Verbs. She writes from her dining room table in the south of France in between motherhood, French lessons and perfecting her oeuf en croute. Previous lives include teaching, copy editing and bookkeeping.