Healthcare in France: a beginner’s guide

Félicitations! You’ve chosen a life in France – or perhaps life in France has chosen you. Either way, there’s plenty to learn about life in the land of baguettes, cheese and fine wine.

Healthcare in France: a beginner’s guide
Photo: gioiak2/Depositphotos
And at the top of any new expat’s list is sorting out healthcare in their adopted country. Figuring out who to call for what – especially in a foreign language – can take longer than expected.
To help get you started, we’ve put together a quick introduction guide to some of the basics to think about when trying to navigate healthcare in France.
Finding a doctor
Finding a doctor in France when you’ve first arrived can be a bit tricky – given that doctors aren’t allowed to advertise. Most do, however, list their services in the online yellow pages (Pages Jaunes). In the keyword field on the left (“Quoi, Qui”), enter “médécin” and then enter your location in the field on the right.
Of course, it’s very hard to know from the yellow pages if a doctor speaks English. So another option is to stroll into a local pharmacy and ask for recommendations (most will be staffed with someone who understands basic English). Friends, colleagues, and neighbours can also provide guidance, and some embassies also publish lists of English-speaking doctors.
Most doctors in France practice on their own, or in small groups of practitioners. It doesn’t usually take very long to book an appointment – but keep in mind that fees are normally paid upfront and many doctors don’t accept credit cards.
To participate in the French state healthcare system, residents are required to register with a general practitioner, or médecin traitant – who then becomes your first port of call for medical matters.
However, participating in a private health insurance programme like Cigna Global gives you added flexibility to choose whatever doctor you want at no extra cost.
Emergency care
It’s usually best to go straight to the nearest hospital in an emergency (look for les urgences). Most towns have a Hôpital or Centre hospitalier where emergency care is available. In larger cities, you may find a regional hospitals (centre hospitalier regional – CHR) or university hospitals (centre hospitalier universitaire – CHU).
Urgent emergency care is run centrally by a public health body known SAMU (Service d’Aide Médicale Urgente), which operates under the philosophy of giving a high-level of care at the scene of the emergency. You can call SAMU by dialing 15.
Each Département runs its own emergency care services, which range from private medical transport services to full-blown mobile intensive care units (Service Mobile d’Urgence et de Réanimation – SMUR).
If you need to call for an ambulance or on-site help, you can always use 112, the pan-European emergency number. Other options include 15 for SAMU, 17 for the police, or 18 for the fire brigade.
Operators may speak English, but there is no guarantee. SAMU is staffed with qualified doctors who are trained to determine the best response, including whether it’s serious enough to send a SMUR unit.
In a few regions of France there is also a new 24-hour GP hotline being tested.
Specialist care
In general, your French general practitioner (médecin traitant) is able to refer you to a specialist if you need particular treatment. Getting a referral allows you to be reimbursed for up to 70 percent of the associated costs according to the French health insurance scheme. Of course if you have a private health insurance plan like Cigna Global, you may be able to go straight to a specialist covered under your plan.
You don’t need a referral for visits to a paediatrician, gynaecologist, psychiatrist or ophthalmologist.
Either way, your médecin traitant will keep track of your medical records and help manage any additional treatments.
In France, both over-the- counter and non-prescription drugs are sold in shops known as pharmacie – identified by an iconic green cross. They feature highly-trained staff, many of whom may have a passable command of English. They are knowledgeable and friendly, and can be a good place to start if you have questions about different conditions and treatments.
When buying prescription medication at a pharmacy, you’ll receive a brown form known as feuille de soin that needs to be filled out by both you and the pharmacist. There is also a small sticker (a vignette) that must be peeled off the box of any medication and placed on the feuille de soin. This is then sent to your health insurance provider for reimbursement.
Generally, pharmacies are open from 9:30am to 7:00pm, Monday through Saturday, remaining close on Sundays and bank holidays (and during lunch). However, there is always a local pharmacie de garde that provides off-hours services.
Paying for it (insurance)
Generally speaking, choosing a médecin traitant is key to getting reimbursed through the French healthcare system. Doing things correctly means you can receive reimbursement of up to 70 percent of your medical expenses (compared to only up to 30 percent otherwise). While it’s possible to change doctors, there is a degree of administrative hassle involved.
Many expats find it’s less stressful to have private health insurance from an international company.
Cigna Global specializes in healthcare for foreigners abroad, ensuring you are covered at every level with maximum flexibility. After all, of all the things to worry about when moving abroad, healthcare should not be one of them. Let Cigna Global worry about your health, so you can get to know the local boulangerie instead!
This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Cigna Global.
For members


Why you need a medical certificate to play sport in France

If you plan to take up a sport or join an exercise class in France, you may be surprised to learn that there’s more to it than simply rocking up and asking to join in.

Why you need a medical certificate to play sport in France

Every year – usually in early September – sports clubs and associations in a particular area gather at a convenient location, such as the Parc Expo, to attract new members. 

This is the time you’ll learn all about the registration process, membership fees which can be several hundred euros a year (but cover the bulk of the cost of the whole year), and whether you’ll need a medical certificate.

That’s right. A medical certificate. From a doctor. 

Legally, you don’t necessarily need one to practise a sport – you definitely don’t need one for a kickabout with friends at the park, or for a leisurely swim at the local pool, for example. 

On the other hand, it may be a requirement of any club you wish to join, or in order to get a licence from the sports body (federation) to which it belongs.

Some exercise classes may also ask for a medical certificate and you’ll certainly need one if you want to enter any kind of public sports event such as a marathon, half-marathon or triathlon. 

How often you need to provide one depends on the sport. Some are annual requirements – necessitating that trip to your doctor every year – others may last a number of years.

Sports that have annual requirements include; mountaineering, scuba diving, caving; parachuting; rugby union, rugby league and sevens rugby; combat sports such as boxing; sports involving the use of firearms or compressed air weapons; karting, motor cycling, motor racing; aerobatics and gliding.

The certificate is officially known as a Certificat médical attestant de l’absence de contre-indication à la pratique du sport (medical certificate testifying to the absence of contra-indications against practising sport) and it can be issued by any généraliste, or certain specialists like cardiologists.

If your regular doctor is busy you can go to any doctor to get one of these – it doesn’t have to be your registered médecin traitant.

The exact procedure at the doctor’s varies – some doctors are happy to just give you a quick check-up, others might demand a more thorough examination or even a stress test such as running on the treadmill. It largely depends on the individual doctor as well as your general health and exactly how strenuous the sport you want to do it. 

The government has developed an online simulator to help you find out if you need a medical certificate and how long it lasts before it needs renewing.