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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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How is Swiss healthcare system different from the rest of Europe?

Switzerland’s health infrastructure is consistently rated among the best in the world, but how does it compare with other countries?

How is Swiss healthcare system different from the rest of Europe?

Whether in terms of politics, social system or economy, the Swiss often chart their own course, which fundamentally diverges from that of its European neighbours.

Healthcare is no exception.

The differences lie primarily in who finances the scheme — public versus private — and how the overall system functions.

Like much of the European Union, Switzerland has a universal health system, which means everyone in the country is covered by insurance and has access to medical care.

In most countries, the government typically has control, to a lesser or greater extent, over funding, health insurance, and health providers.

In France, for instance, most healthcare costs are covered by the state healthcare system, known as assurance maladie, and this is funded by taxes – healthcare costs account for about 13 percent of the average person’s gross salary.

In Germany, health costs are shared by employers and workers, with employees paying 7.5 percent of their salaries into a public health insurance fund, and companies matching that amount.

Italy’s national, system, called the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, or simply SSN, which is financed mainly though federal and regional taxes, automatically covers all residents. Medical care is largely free of charge at the point of service.

Public healthcare also exists in Austria, with certain portions of salaries being automatically deducted to fund the scheme. However, healthcare is free of charge for low-income people or those who who are disabled, studying, or retired.

Although no longer part of the EU, the UK health system is also based on state healthcare via the NHS. It is funded by taxes which account for about 4.5 percent of the average citizens’ gross income.

What about Switzerland?

The system here is fundamentally different in that it is not tax-based or financed by employers, but rather by individuals themselves.

Everyone must have a basic health insurance coverage and purchase it from one of dozens of private carriers.

Basic insurance — KVG in German and LaMal in French and Italian — is compulsory in Switzerland. It doesn’t come cheap — premiums are based on the canton of residence and age, costing 300 to 400 francs a month on average — but it is quite comprehensive; it includes coverage for illness, medications, tests, maternity, physical therapy, preventive care, and many other treatments.

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

There are no employer-sponsored or state-run insurance programmes, and the government’s only role is to ensure that all insurance companies offer the same basic coverage to everyone and that they have the same pricing.

While companies can’t compete on prices or benefits offered by the basic compulsory insurance — which are defined by the Health Ministry — they can, and do, compete on supplemental polices which offer perks not included in the basic coverage.

READ MORE: What isn’t covered by Switzerland’s compulsory health insurance?

All policies have deductibles (also called co-pays) that can range from 300 to 2,500 francs a year.

After the deductible is reached, 90 percent of all medical costs will be covered by insurance, with 10 percent being paid by the patient; however, this co-pay is capped at 700 francs a year for adults and 350 francs for children under 18.

The government does subsidise healthcare for the low-income individuals and households – defined as those for whom insurance premiums exceed 10 percent of their income.

What percentage of a person’s income goes to health insurance premiums?

This depends on wages and premiums, for instance, whether a person chose the cheapest option with a high deductible or the expensive one with a 300-franc deductible.

Generally speaking, however, based on the average monthly income of just over 7,000 francs, about 6.5 percent is spent on premiums.

What happens if you don’t take out an health insurance policy?

Anyone who arrives in  Switzerland must get insured within three months. If you don’t, the government will choose one for you and send you the bill. If this happens you may end up with more expensive premiums than you might have gotten if you shopped around yourself.

If you are still delinquent on your payments, your healthcare will be restricted to emergencies only; any other non-urgent medical treatment will be denied, unless you pay for it out of pocket.

The pros and cons of the Swiss system

Let’s look at the ‘cons’ first. Basically, there is one: the cost.

Not only are insurance premiums high and steadily increasing, but, at 7,179 francs per capita, Switzerland has the third most expensive healthcare scheme in the world — behind only the United States ($12,318) and Germany ($7,383).

Unlike taxpayer-funded models, there is no price grading according to income, so people on a low income pay a high proportion of their income for healthcare than higher earners. 

However, the system is generally efficient, has an extensive network of doctors, as well as well-equipped hospitals and clinics.

Patients are free to choose their own doctor and usually have unlimited access to specialists.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to see a specialist doctor in Switzerland without a referral

Waiting lists for medical treatments are relatively short.

According to a survey by the Organisation  for Economic Cooperation and Development  (OECD) on how long patients in various countries typically wait for an appointment with a specialist, the share of people in Switzerland waiting a month or more is 23 percent, compared to 36 percent in France, 52 percent in Sweden, and 61 percent in Norway.