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.
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How to get help in France with dementia and memory loss

It’s not something anyone wants to consider, but older people especially are susceptible to suffering some form of mental decline including dementia - and there is help and support out there in France.

How to get help in France with dementia and memory loss

If you are concerned that a loved one or friend may be showing signs of mental decline, here’s an overview of the system in France and where you might go to get help.

What to do if you think a loved one has dementia

First things first, dementia is not an illness. It is, more accurately, a catch-all term used to describe a group of symptoms that affect memory, thinking and social abilities, linked to one of a number of medical conditions of the brain, including Alzheimer’s, or by traumatic brain injuries. Symptoms vary according to the part of the brain that is damaged.

Dementia can occur at any age, but mainly affects older people. It is the cause of more than half of referrals to long-stay centres.

Britain’s NHS website lists early dementia signs to be aware of. If you are concerned that a loved one is displaying one or more of these signs, then you should seek out a formal diagnosis. Such signs do not prove the presence of a neurocognitive disorder, but if they do, early detection will make things much easier.

The first step – as always – is to arrange a consultation with your GP, who may refer the patient to a specialist.

READ ALSO How to make a doctor’s appointment in France

What happens in the specialist consultation

A referral will generally see the patient go to a local Consultation mémoire de proximité (CMP) in a Centre mémoire de ressources et de recherche (CMRR), where a specialist medical team can diagnose dementia and memory disorders.

The diagnosis will follow a series of cognitive assessment tests as well as, perhaps, brain scans and physical tests, depending on the outcome of the cognitive testing. The specialists will give you all the information you need at the time.

If a form of dementia is diagnosed, it’s understandable that you’ll be concerned about what could and should happen if your loved one can no longer take care of themselves.

As with early detection of a degenerative brain condition itself, it’s important not to leave discussions about the future too long. Do it before it’s too late is the best advice, even though it’s a conversation (or a series of them) that you will not want to have.

Financial and legal affairs

France has several administrative options for legal arrangements similar to power of attorney or guardianship – known by the umbrella term of mesures de protection judiciaires (judicial protection measures) – as well as less formal steps for those who are unable to make decisions in their daily life.

READ ALSO GUIDE: Guardianship or power of attorney options in France for elderly or vulnerable people

It is worthwhile noting, for example, that power of attorney in France can be separated into different individual areas – banking, administration, documents and management related to assets/inheritance, and voting – or granted for all sections.

It is also a good idea to check any life and health insurance policies. France insurance companies offer something known as Assurance dépendance, which pays out when holders are unable to care for themselves.

READ ALSO Health insurance in France: What you need to know about a mutuelle

Most policies insure against partial and/or total loss of autonomy. The exact sums – paid either as a lump sum or monthly – depend on the terms of the policy and degree of incapacity and can cover adaptations to a home to allow for the care of a dependent person, home help, specialised transport – even funeral expenses.

Meanwhile, families caring for a family member with dementia may also be eligible for means-tested Allocation personnalisée d’autonomie

READ ALSO French government’s seven-step plan to improve end-of-life care

Help and support

It is worthwhile getting in touch with agencies and associations, France Alzheimer for example, once you have a diagnosis. 

They will be best placed to help you navigate the French system for care and assistance – and even just provide emotional support when you need it.

They can also guide you through the CAF benefits that you may be eligible for, or help you apply for visits from a home help or aide domicile.

If the time comes when the person can no longer live at home and residential care is required, here’s a look at how the French care home system works, and the financial situation for people who have never worked in France.