Healthcare in Italy

7 February 2019

As her year abroad came to a close, Jennifer had to deal with the stress of handling a foreign healthcare system. Read on to hear what she leant from the experience.

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My last month in Florence has been full of mixed feelings - wanting to make the most of every day here while also studying for exams, feeling excited to go home and dreading leaving Italy at the same time. But the overwhelming feeling, last week, was stress. My lovely flatmate, also a UCL student, had to spend a week in hospital, and although she was staying in the oldest working hospital in the world, filled with frescoes and sun-flooded portico walkways, it was not the ideal place to be the week before final exams. So here’s what we learnt about healthcare in Italy - hopefully someone else can learn from our experiences!

Step one is going to the doctor. Generally you will have to pay for a doctor’s appointment, whether it’s public or private, and the amount will vary on where you go and what treatment you need. If you go private, you will pay directly with card or cash, but if you go public you will need the codice fiscale to pay. (NB: I think you can get costs of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions refunded by the UCL insurance, if you fill out a very long form - always keep your receipts.) The codice fiscale is basically the Italian version of a national identity number, and you use it to pay bills, as well as to operate the 24-hour cigarette machines, weirdly. My number one piece of advice to anyone studying in Italy would be to do this as soon as you arrive - go to the Agenzia delle entrate with a photocopy of your passport and a photo of yourself and you will be assigned a number. The queueing is worth it should the worst happen. 

Step two is going to the hospital. A&E in Italian is pronto soccorso and works much the same as in the UK. If you do need to go to the hospital, make sure you have your ID (a driver’s licence is fine but a passport is better), your codice fiscale, your EHIC card, and photocopies of your UCL insurance policy. It is generally good practice to carry photocopies of these four things around with you, or at least have scans on your phone. The EHIC card covers all the healthcare that for Italians would be free - in my flatmate’s case, all she had to pay for were the CDs that scan results were written on. UCL insurance covers repatriation of the person in hospital, and costs of a relative flying out if you are hospitalised for more than five days. To be honest, she had a difficult experience with the insurance company, and having to mediate between English speakers and Italian doctors didn’t help things. Advice here would be to make good local friends that can help you out with language issues and understanding the system. The sad truth is that, in Italy, men are often respected more than women, so having a male friend of the family around really helped my flatmate fight her corner.

I think Italian hospitals have quite a bad reputation, in terms of doctors being rude (this was true 50% of the time) and the care being generally not as good as the good old NHS. However, chatting to some nurses, we found that they were similarly suspicious of the British health system, and, as ever, everything is relative to which horror stories you’ve heard. My impression was generally positive - the Italians took thorough care of my flatmate, and most doctors had a decent enough level of English to make sure we understood what was going on. One huge advantage of the Italian healthcare system is the food - would you get parmesan served with every hospital tray meal in blighty? I think not. 

Anyone who has been sick while abroad would probably agree that it’s scary and stressful - dealing with hospitals is hard enough when you understand everything and your family and friends are nearby. What we’ve learnt is the importance of photocopies and having all your information with you, and also sticking up for yourself. It’s often embarrassing to say you don’t understand, and awful when people start to get frustrated with you because of it, but that doesn’t mean you’re at fault, and you’re not wrong to ask come?? for the fifth time in a row. And of course the most important lesson - if you’re going to be in hospital for a while, bring your own tea bags. Italian tea is just not as good. 

By Jennifer Osei-Mensah