Here’s how to learn Swedish if you have a medical degree

Are you new to Sweden with a medical degree from your home country and not sure how to tackle the job market or the notoriously tricky language? Don’t panic, help is close at hand.

Here's how to learn Swedish if you have a medical degree
Shabrina Shabrina (left), Marylee Caspillo (second right) and Emna Smati (right) with a teacher at SFM

Swedish for Medical Personnel, SFM, is the perfect course for you. If you have a medical degree from your country of origin and you’re a trained doctor, nurse, pharmacist, dentist, dietician or physiotherapist, you can apply to study at SFM. You’ll get priority if it’s less than three years since you joined Sweden’s population register (but you can still apply even if you’ve been here much longer).

Learn more about SFM and how to apply to start studying in March 2022

Emna Smati, a dentist originally from Tunisia, signed up for the course this year, and is especially impressed with the fact that the course offers four hours a week of studying professional medical Swedish.

“SFM is oriented to people like me, those who have a medical education and a medical background in their previous home country,” Emna says. “It offers something that other courses don’t, which is the Swedish medical language component.”

She emphasises how important it is to learn local medical terminology for the medical profession. “More than many other professions, understanding local medical terms can be a matter of life and death,” she says. “If you’re talking to a patient and you need to explain some medical-related issue, you can’t just talk in English, they probably wouldn’t understand. It’s the patient’s right to understand what’s going on.”

Marylee Caspillo, a nurse who arrived in Sweden from Germany, agrees that learning medical Swedish is vital. “When I first arrived lots of people told me that I would get a job really easily without knowing the Swedish language because there were acute shortages of nurses,” she says. “And they were right – I could’ve taken a job at a private facility. But I think it’s important to speak the native language and to understand all the medical terms in Swedish, especially when many of our patients are older people – we must not assume that they will be able to speak English.”

Marylee also believes it’s vital that medical teams all speak the same language. “As nurses we work in teams with Swedish doctors, so we really need the Swedish medical vocabulary when helping patients in practical situations.”

Students at SFM also study the Swedish healthcare system and culture, as well as medical law. These vocational courses are provided by licensed professionals with many years experience in Swedish healthcare. The courses have a fairly even gender-split, usually of around 60 percent females and 40 percent males.

Each part of the course lasts nine weeks, consisting of between 18 and 22 lesson hours a week, plus 15 to 20 hours of studying on your own. Students spend three days per week on-site in Huddinge in Stockholm County and two days’ distance learning. The training takes up to 18 months depending on your level of Swedish at the start.

Ready to learn medical Swedish? Apply for a place on Swedish for Medical Personnel, SFM, before January 24th to start a class in March

Shabrina Shabrina, a doctor from Indonesia, said she struggled at first with learning Swedish after moving to Sweden. “I found it more complicated than English, but the learning style was also too slow. I needed to learn more quickly because I wanted to start work as a doctor.”

Shabrina also emphasised that doctors who come from outside the EU have to take extra theoretical and practical exams, before they’re allowed to commence work as a doctor in Sweden. “SFM’s intense course in Swedish medical terminology makes a huge difference in helping us pass those exams,” she says.

“I also had an interview recently and the interviewer complimented me on my Swedish – she couldn’t believe I’d only been in the country less than two years. And that was all down to SFM.”

Emna appreciated the mix of on-site and remote learning. “I have a daughter and it was a struggle for me at first because when I started the SFM course, my daughter was too young for preschool. But the remote learning option was made available and that made it much easier for me to immerse myself in the course.” 

Marylee is also a fan of the study mix. “The structure is great,” she says. “When we’re onsite we can meet with the teachers and mix with our fellow students. And we’re doing it in Swedish! Right now, we’re near the end of the course and everyone’s Swedish is now quite fluent and we’re enjoying chatting to each other in Swedish – it’s really fun.”

But it was another of the course’s great benefits – that each profession receives dedicated tuition from a specialist – that most pleased Emna. “For example, as a dentist, I get lessons from a dentist – I really didn’t expect that! I had a pharmacist in my study group and she also received targeted lessons.”

As a doctor, Shabrina also enjoyed the profession-relevant parts of the course. “We had a chance to carry out practical work at the Karolinska Institute, which is one of the world’s foremost medical universities. It was a terrific experience.”

Even when the course is over, Emna says, the teachers and professors make themselves available to help former students. “I’ve known people who’ve contacted the teaching staff a year after completing the course asking for help with their resumés and they’ve been helped immediately. The teaching staff are amazing – they always make themselves available.”

But studying at SFM also offers other tangible advantages to international residents in Sweden. Marylee, like many people who move to a new country for love, had no friends when she arrived.

SFM changed my life,” she says. “When you move to a country for love, your partner’s friends become your friends but they’re not friends that you choose. So the course gave me the chance to make my own friends who were interested in the things I was interested in. I now have my own circle of friends and you can’t measure the importance of that.”

Medically trained and want to learn Swedish? Make a positive start to 2022 – learn more about SFM and how to start a course in March

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EXPLAINED: What to do if you face a long wait for healthcare in Sweden

Sweden theoretically has a "healthcare guarantee" limiting your wait to see a GP to three days, and to see a consultant to three months. The reality is somewhat different. Here's what you can do if you face a long wait.

EXPLAINED: What to do if you face a long wait for healthcare in Sweden

What is Sweden’s ‘healthcare guarantee’? 

Sweden’s “National Guaranteed Access to Healthcare” or vårdgaranti, is a right to care, protected by law, that has applied in Sweden since 2005. You can see the latest version of the relevant laws here and here. Here is a summary of the guarantee on the website of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR).

Under the system, all patients are guaranteed:

  • contact with a primary care centre by phone, in-person, or by video-link on the day they seek care 
  • an appointment with a doctor, nurse, physio, or psychotherapist within three days of seeking help 
  • an appointment with a specialist doctor or consultant within 90 days of seeking help 
  • treatment or operation within 90 days, if the specialist considers this necessary 

Does the guarantee mean I have a right to treatment? 

No. If the doctor at the primary care centre, after examining you and questioning you, decides that there is no reason to refer you to a specialist doctor, they do not need to do so. 

Similarly, if the specialist doctor, after examining you, decides that no treatment is necessary, then your case is considered completed.  

Can the waiting times to see a specialist or to get treatment be longer than 90 days? 

Absolutely. In fact, they very often are. 

According to the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR), in February, 32 percent of patients had been waiting 90 days or more to see a specialist, and 43 percent of those who had seen a specialist had been waiting for treatment for more than 90 days.  

The situation in primary care was a little better, with 80 percent of those seeking care in contact with their primary care centre on the same day, and 83 percent having their case assessed by a doctor or nurse within three days. 

In addition, if you agree with your specialist doctor that you are willing to wait longer for an operation, then that wait doesn’t get counted in the statistics. 

So what can I do if I’ve been waiting longer than the guaranteed time? 

In reality, it’s actually less a guarantee than a target.

In primary care, there is no way for individual patients to complain that they have had to wait too long to see a doctor or nurse, or to cut their waiting times by citing the guarantee. 

“There’s no system for enforcing that guarantee,” says Emma Spak, the primary care doctor who doubles as section chief for SKR’s healthcare division. 

It would make no sense to set up a complaints line for those who have had to wait too long for phone contact with their primary care centre, she points out, when they could instead talk to patients seeking a primary care appointment in the first place. 

“It’s more of an incentive system for the regions,” she explains.

Every primary care unit and every region reports their waiting times to the national waiting time register, and then as part of the access agreement between SKR and the government, the regional health authorities receive a bonus if they meet their waiting times goal, or if they improve their waiting times. “That’s one way of sort of enforcing this guarantee,” she says. 

When it comes to specialist treatment, though, patients do have the right to demand to be examined or treated by an alternative specialist or hospital if they’ve had to wait longer than 90 days.

If your primary care centre issues you a referral to a specialist, and the specialist cannot then offer you an appointment within 90 days, the specialist, at the same time as offering you a later appointment, will often put you in contact with a unit at the regional health authority who will offer to find you an alternative specialist, either within the region or elsewhere in Sweden. 

The regional health authority will then have to reimburse any extra travel or hotel costs incurred by the patient.  

Similarly, if after examining you, a specialist cannot offer you treatment within 90 days, they will normally put you in contact with the same unit. 

Some regions have a phone line for people who have been waiting too long, or else you can contact your specialist or primary care centre and ask for information on seeking an alternative specialist. 

What happens if I don’t want to travel to see a specialist or get treatment? 

If your regional health authority offers you an alternative specialist, either within your region or in another region, so that you can get treated within the 90 day period, and you are unwilling to travel, then you lose your rights under the guarantee. . 

“If you’re in Gothenburg, and they say you have to go to Stockholm to get your treatment, and you say, ‘no, I want to go here, then then you’ve sort of forfeited your right, and you have to take what’s on offer,” Spak says. 

What happens if I agree with my specialist to wait longer? 

If your specialist says that they can treat you in four months, but also offers you treatment elsewhere within the guaranteed 90 days, and you choose to be treated by your specialist, then that counts as a patient choice, which will not then be counted in the statistics. 

“The specialist might say, ‘I don’t think you will get any worse for waiting two months extra, and if you wait five months, then I can make sure that you get your surgery done here, and we can make sure that you get all the aftercare and everything here as well,” Spak says. 

But these patient decisions are also counted in the statistics, and if a region sees a sharp rise in patients choosing to wait, SKR will tend to investigate. 

“If some region all of a sudden has a lot of patients choosing a longer waiting time, then we will call them and ask what’s going on here, because patients don’t tend to want to wait extra,” Spak says.  

Can I get financial compensation if I’ve been waiting too long? 


What other ways are there of speeding up the wait for treatment? 

Don’t underplay your symptoms

When drawing up their timetable for treatment and assessment, specialists will tend to give different patients different wait times depending on the urgency of their case.

For this reason, it’s important not to underplay your symptoms when visiting a primary care doctor, as they will tend to include a few lines on the urgency of your case when they write their referral. 

Stress your flexibility 

If you are unemployed, a student, retired, or have a very flexible job, it is worth telling your primary care doctor about this, because they may write in your referral that you are able to make appointments at very short notice. The specialist may then put you on their list of people to ring if one of their patients cancels. 

“Sometimes I write in my referrals that this patient could easily come at short notice, so please put the patient on the list for people you can call if there’s a time slot available,” Spak says. 

If you haven’t told your primary care doctor this, it’s not too late. You can ring the specialist yourself and tell their receptionist that you are very flexible, and ask to be put on the back-up list. This is particularly useful if you’re waiting for a scan, but you could also potentially work even if you’re waiting for heart surgery or a hip replacement. 

“If they’ve accepted you as a patient, and they’ve made sure that you fulfil the criteria for having that scan or whatever, then you can call them and say, ‘I have a really flexible job, I can come anytime if you have a gap,'” Spak says.

“A lot of people do that, because they can have [back-up] waiting lists. If you tell them ‘I work around the corner and I only need 15 minutes to be there’, then they might call you if someone doesn’t show up.” 

Ring up your specialist 

The queue system tends to be quite ad hoc, with no strict rules over who should be treated first, so it is often possible to reduce your wait by ringing up your specialist a few times a month, just to bring your case to their attention. Sometimes the receptionist will remember a slot that has just come free and bring forward your treatment while you are still on the telephone.