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EXPLAINED: Where to look for help if you get ill in Switzerland

EXPLAINED: Where to look for help if you get ill in Switzerland
Know where to call in case of illness. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
When you are sick, you may not immediately know where to turn for help, especially if you are a recent arrival in Switzerland. This is what you should know.

An often-used catchphrase, “laughter is the best medicine” may have some validity in certain cases, but for the vast majority of people, sickness is no laughing matter.

When an illness strikes, many people get stressed and confused, and may not know what to do.

If your first reflex is to go to the emergency room, don’t — unless you have a heart attack, stroke, difficulty breathing, severe allergic reaction, a serious injury, or other potentially life-threatening conditions that require immediate medical assistance.

In such extreme cases, dial, or ask someone else to do so, 144, which is a Swiss-wide number for health emergencies. If, based on your symptoms, the dispatcher considers your condition urgent, they will send an ambulance out to take you to a hospital.

READ MORE: Nine Swiss phone numbers you should never forget

But if you show up at an emergency room by your own volition, and your condition turns out to be mild to moderate, you might be charged a fee of 50 francs, which you have to pay out of your own pocket (as opposed to health insurance paying for it).

The National Council approved this measure in December 2019 and it is now at the Council of States, which has also accepted this parliamentary initiative on Wednesday.

MPs argued that this measure may dissuade those who are not seriously ill from going to the emergency room and overloading the system, while also taking medical staff away from patients who need urgent help.

Exemptions could apply to children and adolescents under the age of 16, patients referred to the emergency room by a doctor, and those whose treatment subsequently requires hospitalisation.

Your best bet: your own doctor

If you have a GP in Switzerland, he or she should be your first contact in case of illness.

The physician knows your medical history and is the best person to judge whether your symptoms require urgent treatment, in which case you’ll be told to go to the emergency room.

If not, you may be asked to come to their practice for a check-up or tests, or maybe, if your  condition doesn’t warrant a medical visit, you will be told over the phone what medications you should be taking and a prescription will be sent to your pharmacy.

But there is a caveat to this scenario: it only works if you get sick during office hours from Monday to Friday. If you fall ill at night or on a weekend, as many people seem to do, then your doctor’s office won’t answer the phone.

However, there will be a recorded message informing you what to do and where to seek help at any hour.

And this leads to the next point…

What to do if you are unsure whether your illness is serious?

Each Swiss canton has a hotline you can call in such a case. The person who answers is a trained medical worker who will ask you to describe your symptoms and decide on one of the three scenarios.

One, your condition is urgent enough to be sent to an emergency room for immediate treatment. In this case, the dispatcher will inform the hospital of your imminent arrival.

Two, your condition is serious but doesn’t require emergency services. It, does, however, need to be treated immediately, in which case you will either be told to go to a designated “duty doctor” in your area, or, if you are not mobile or well enough to go, the doctor will come to you.

Numbers for this (free) service vary from one canton to another, so you should find out what it is in your area.

What about the coronavirus?

Here too, both federal and cantonal authorities have specific rules in place.

If you suspect you have been infected, you can either call for guidance the hotline set up by the Federal Office of Public Health, at 800 88 66 44 (from 6 am to 11 pm), or directly your canton’s Covid hotline.

If you must make the call at night, then phone the duty doctor in your area, as mentioned above.

READ MORE: PCR, rapid and self-tests: Your guide to coronavirus testing in Switzerland


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