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What you should know about finding a doctor in Switzerland

One of the most important things to know about when settling in a new country is how to access medical care in your new place of residence. Here’s how this process works in Switzerland.

What you should know about finding a doctor in Switzerland
Registering with a good doctor is one of the most important steps for new arrivals. Photo:Pixabay

Even if you are generally in good health, chances are that sooner or later you will have to seek medical care — that’s just how life is.

This may sound daunting but the good news is that Swiss health care system is among the best in the world, so you can expect high quality care — even though it can come at a price.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about health insurance in Switzerland

First things first

Health insurance is compulsory in Switzerland for all residents, including foreigners.

You have up to three months after your arrival and registering in your commune of residence to buy basic coverage from one of the dozens of insurance carriers.

If you don’t purchase a policy within three months, authorities will send you a letter reminding you of your obligation to do so.

If you still refuse, your canton will purchase insurance for you and send you a bill — which you will have to pay.

READ MORE: What you should know about your Swiss health insurance before you go abroad

In such a case you will lose the option of choosing a health insurance company with favourable premiums.

Also, several cantons — Aargau, Lucerne, Ticino, Thurgau, and Zug — keep blacklists of people who don’t pay their health insurance premiums. The delinquent payers can be treated for emergencies, but the insurance will not cover their other medical bills. 

All this to say that you should get policy that fits your needs within the 90-day timeframe.

The only people exempted from this requirement are cross-border workers who have insurance in their home country, retired people whose pension comes only from a EU / EFTA state, and diplomats.

However, just because you have three months to get insurance doesn’t mean you should wait until the last minute to do so. The sooner you do it, the sooner you can sleep easy.

Can you choose your own doctor in Switzerland?

That depends on the kind of insurance you have.

While most ‘regular’ policies allow you to choose your medical provider(s), the cheaper options limit the choice of doctors to those designated by the insurance company, or require you to call a telephone service to get a referral to a doctor or hospital.

You can find more about this here:

Five tips for getting cheaper health insurance in Switzerland

How do I choose the right doctor in Switzerland? 

Choosing a doctor is an important step in ensuring that your and your family’s health are in good hands.

Your selection may be based on criteria ranging from the doctor’s English-speaking ability (most medical professionals in Switzerland have some knowledge of English) to the proximity of his or her practice.

The best way for a newcomer to find a doctor is through recommendations of people you know and trust.

Otherwise, this link will help you see who is available in your area.

Unless you have a medical condition that demands special care, your best bet is to sign up with a primary-care GP who will look after your general health, administer tests, prescribe medications, and refer you to a specialist in case of need.

In the best-case scenario, finding a good doctor will be easy. However, this is not always the case.

That is because there is a shortage of primary care physicians in Switzerland, which is more problematic in some regions, according to the Swiss Medical Weekly journal.

Swiss news site Comparis notes that the number of GPs has dwindled proportionally in recent years, while the demand for GPs has grown. 

Depending on where you live, you may have to call around before you find one that accepts new patients.

You may have more luck with practices that employ several physicians rather than sole-doctor offices, or young, newly-established healthcare professionals over those close to retirement age who no longer take in new patients.

How do I find a GP/family doctor in Switzerland? 

If you have moved within Switzerland, you can ask your former family doctor for a referral to a doctor in your new neighbourhood. This will often work even if the doctor is not taking on new patients. 

Another option is to go to newly established practices, as they will not yet have a set patient base and will take on new patients. 

People from certain insurance companies can also find family doctors through so-called ‘family doctor model’ arrangements, where GPs will take on new patients if they share the same health insurance provider. 

While this can help even if the doctor is not taking on new patients, Swiss comparison site Comparis notes that being a part of one of these arrangements can make it harder to find doctors who are not affiliated with the same insurance company. 

First visit

Once you get an appointment with a new doctor, you should ask your former physician to transfer your medical history to the new health provider — these days it is usually done electronically.

You will be requested by the office staff to provide — yes, you guessed it — your health insurance card. Once a year you will likely be asked whether you still have the same insurance policy, because some people switch from one company to another in the meantime.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to change your health insurance carrier in Switzerland and save money

Your medical bills will go directly to the insurance company, which will then send you a copy of the invoice, along with a payment slip for any co-pay that you may owe.

The first contact with your new doctor is important in not only establishing your medical file but also a good relationship — feeling comfortable with the person taking care of your health is essential.

You can base your assessment, for instance,  on how responsive the doctor and the staff are to your queries, how well they explain medical treatments, and how quickly they will set up an appointment if you need urgent care.

What about visiting specialists in Switzerland? 

Generally speaking, your family doctor is your first point of call in Switzerland.

They will be able to diagnose basic conditions and refer you elsewhere for treatment, including to specialists. 

If you want to see a specialist directly, you do not need a referral in Switzerland. 

However, this may have health insurance implications and you might have to wait longer for an appointment in some cases. 

More information about doctors in Switzerland is laid out at the following official government link. 

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OPINION: Anti-abortion activists in Switzerland are just posturing with latest hollow move

As women’s reproductive rights are on the verge of being drastically eroded in the United States, Switzerland is witnessing the launch of two parallel popular initiatives seeking to restrict access to abortion here, writes Clare O'Dea.

OPINION: Anti-abortion activists in Switzerland are just posturing with latest hollow move

This is pure posturing by anti-abortion activists. It is obvious they can’t win the popular vote – the last time there was a vote on abortion in 2014, 80 per cent voted to leave the current regime unchanged – but Swiss campaigners still want to remind the public of their dissent. 

If they hurt women along the way, perhaps that’s acceptable collateral damage for them. Or perhaps that’s the whole point. The initiatives were launched together in December 2021 and the signature gathering deadline is in June 2023.   

All these campaigners achieve by dragging abortion onto the public agenda is piling additional stress and guilt on women who are going through a personal, in some cases heartbreaking, healthcare dilemma. Perhaps the rationale is that this extra pressure would have a deterrent effect. 

Switzerland was one of the first European countries to legislate for abortion in 1937, allowing abortion when the woman’s health was in danger. The cantons were free to decide how strictly to interpret the law and this led to a patchwork of abortion services across the country. 

Women ended up needing to travel inside the country to access abortion right up to 2002 when voters accepted the new abortion law allowing unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The law set conditions for abortions after this point. 

Reader question: Is abortion legal in Switzerland?

The first of the two initiatives is the ‘Save viable babies’ campaign to stop late-term abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger. This would apply to pregnancies from 22 weeks gestation where the foetus could potentially survive outside the womb with medical support. 

The second one is the blandly named ‘Sleep on it’ initiative, seeking to impose a one-day waiting period before allowing women and girls to access abortion treatment. Both sets of signatures are being collected together “for synergy reasons”. 

Three Swiss People’s Party (SVP) parliamentarians are behind the campaigns, including two women, Andrea Geissbühler and Yvette Estermann. They got nowhere in parliament with similar proposals which is why they are taking them to the people. No political party supports either initiative. 

Of the total of some 11,000 pregnancy terminations performed in Switzerland each year, approximately 95 per cent are carried out by the 12th week in accordance with the so-called time-limit regulations. 

Only a very small proportion of all terminations take place at an advanced stage of pregnancy. Some 150 terminations per year are performed after the 17th week of pregnancy. The ‘Save viable babies’ campaign is targeting pregnancies terminated from 22 weeks gestation onwards. There are an estimated 40 such cases per year. 

Just to be clear, the campaign wants the whole country to vote on the fate of 40 women per year going through a terrible personal crisis along with their distressed families. 

OPINION: Switzerland’s denial of voting rights to foreigners motivated by fear

The Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics published an opinion on the practice of late termination of pregnancy in 2018. Here’s what they had to say about these 40 cases annually. 

“The reasons and circumstances underlying advanced pregnancy termination are many and varied. Almost always, the women concerned find themselves in a situation beyond their control, posing a moral dilemma. The need for a decision, and the consequences thereof, can have a lasting impact on the women and their families. Accordingly, the primary ethical principle is that all options need to be jointly considered, with empathetic and careful support being provided for the people concerned.”

Those options include what is called palliative birth for babies with serious conditions who will die at birth or shortly afterwards. 

Guess what, collecting signatures for 18 months for a popular initiative banning late term abortions is the opposite of empathetic support. It exacerbates the suffering involved. But this is a mindset where nothing is more important than the life of the foetus, least of all the parents’ suffering. 

The number of abortions carried out in advanced pregnancy has remained virtually unchanged over the last ten years. Forty out of 11,000 is not very many, but the fact that these situations arise every year represents a sad fact of life. 

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

Meanwhile the ‘Sleep on it’ initiative seeks to introduce a one-day wait between contacting a doctor and receiving the treatment. In three-quarters of cases this means a prescription for abortion pills. 

The one-day wait seems like a spurious and hollow demand. It is normal to think before you go to the doctor for any procedure. I have no doubt that when a woman asks a doctor for an abortion, she has already thought about it – for days if not weeks. She doesn’t need to go through an extra sleepless night to satisfy anyone.   

We know that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is either to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies – through information and services – or to significantly improve the material situation of women, for example income, housing, safety or job security. These factors already contribute to Switzerland’s low abortion rate

But the anti-abortion activists famously concentrate on the least effective tool – banning abortion or making access difficult. 

As an Irish citizen born in the 1970s, I came of age in a country that enshrined the right to life of the unborn in the constitution in 1983, which is what the ‘Save viable babies’ initiative seeks to do. That constitutional ban took a terrible toll on Irish women and girls for 35 years until it was repealed.  

This constitutional ban affected not only abortion services but maternal care in Ireland, with unnecessary suffering and risks imposed on miscarrying women by doctors afraid of breaking the law, as is now being seen in Poland.  

What we know about Swiss abortion is that it is safe, legal and rare. In an imperfect world, this is as good as it gets, no matter what the purists say.