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How to navigate the French medical system

The prospect of being ill or having an emergency in a foreign country can be a particularly daunting one, as dealing with language barriers and differences with home can be difficult when feeling weak and vulnerable. When you live abroad, however, there is a good chance that you will encounter the medical system at some point.

Finding a doctor

It is a good idea to scope out your local area for a doctor and pharmacies quite early on in the relocation process. This will make it easier if and when you are ill to know where to go and what to do. Just as you would in the UK, register with a doctor so that any care and referrals can be managed through them.

All big cities have English-speaking doctors, but those living in smaller towns who do not have a good level of French may find a certain level of language barrier exists. A good place to start looking for a doctor in your area is the yellow pages, known as Pages Jeunes, where they will be categorised under Medecin.

Make sure that the doctor you choose works within the state healthcare system, as this will keep medical bills to a minimum. You can go directly to a ophthalmologist, paediatrician, dentist or gynaecologist in France without the need to be referred by your doctor.


Fees for seeing a doctor are paid up front, but the majority of these are then reimbursed through social security and medical insurance. Reclaiming costs through the state is done with the use of a Carte Vitale, which allows claims to be settled within five days.

It is important to register for this plastic card, which will contain a microchip and have a photo on the front. This should be presented at all doctor's appointments and when buying medicines at the chemist.

To obtain it, you must go to the local branch of the Caisse Primaire D'assurance Maladie (CPAM), which is the primary health insurance fund, where they will complete the paperwork for you. Ensure you take the following items with you:

·         Birth certificate

·         Marriage certificate if registering your partner

·         Workers' S1 form

·         Copy of passport

·         Proof of address

·         Two passport photos

Home visits

It is possible to arrange a home visit from your doctor if you or a family member is too ill to go into the surgery. These appointments are slightly more expensive than regular ones, but are charged and reimbursed in the same way.

Out-of-hours services

In France, out-of-hour services are usually run by a rota system and local police stations will be able to say which doctor is on duty if you give them a call. This method also extends to pharmacies and chemists, so if you do not know of a 24-hour branch open close by, they will be able to point you in the right direction.


Just as families practice calling the emergency services with their children in the UK it is also important to do this in France. The first thing to remember is that the operator who picks up the phone may not speak English. This makes it vital for even the youngest kids to be able to say their address and telephone number in French.

If you or any member of your family has a known condition, then be sure to learn the French terms for it, as well as the names of any medication they are taking to treat the ailment. Write these terms down and keep them to hand if necessary.

The general emergency services number for the whole of Europe is 112, but the specific medical number for France is 15. Calling this will get you through to the ambulance and specialist medical team department.

Useful French medical vocabulary

It's an emergency – C'est un cas d'urgence. 

To call for help – Au secours!

Ambulance – une ambulance

Heart attack – une crise cardiaque

Stroke – une attaque cérébrale

Choke – s'étouffer

Difficulty breathing – haleter

To bleed – saigner

A haemorrhage – une hémorragie

Concussion – une commotion cérébrale

Diabetic – diabétique

Labour – accouchement

Her water has broken – Le bébé arrive.

To be poisoned – s'empoisonner

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