Hello, everyone! First off, I apologize for neglecting to update my blog for the last month. I started a new job, Molly has had a recurring infection, I’ve been sick twice, had a birthday, etc. I will try to be more diligent about updating this at least weekly from now on.
With that being said, I figured that I would write about being sick in Germany, since I once again find myself ill this weekend. My boyfriend was quite sick last week and seems to have passed the virus onto me. The week before last, I was sick with a stomach virus, too, so I guess I’ve been having rather bad luck lately. I’m drinking lots of tea, getting plenty of rest, and hoping that I will be fit and healthy again for work tomorrow! So, without further ado, here are the differences between getting sick in Germany and getting sick in the US:
1. The Doctor’s Office
Just as in the US, you can call the doctor’s office when you are sick and ask to be seen, and they’ll tell you that, yes, you can come in today, but since there are no appointments, you will have to wait a bit. Sometimes, I have been lucky and have only had to wait 15 minutes or so, and other times, such as the week before last, I have waited for over two hours. This is obviously very unpleasant when you are ill, but that’s the way it is.
When you first walk into the waiting room at the doctor’s office, it is considered polite to greet everyone in the room with a “Guten Tag” (Good Day) and to say “Tchüss” or “Aufwiedersehen” (Goodbye) when you leave. The shy side of me feels incredibly uncomfortable doing this to a room full of strangers, especially when I’m sick, and I’m not sure whether or not I’ll ever get used to it!
When you are seen by the doctor, there is, in my experience, very little “small talk” that occurs, and the visits are generally very quick and matter-of-fact. The doctor usually just has one big room where they see everyone, and they have their desk with a computer in the room that you will sit at with them while they “interview” you. They will then sometimes ask you to go sit on the exam table, but not always. If you need to undress, they will not give you a robe, and usually, there is nowhere to undress in private (Germans are really comfortable with nudity, which I am still getting used to, even after 2.5 years living here!). After examining you, the doctor will usually give you your prescription or your write-off from work and send you on your way after a visit of only 5-10 minutes.
2. You have unlimited sick days in Germany.
That’s right: there is no limit to how many sick days you can take here. Germans believe that rest is often the best remedy, and doctors are very reluctant to prescribe medication (see the next point). I was shocked when I went to the doctor two weeks ago, expecting to be excused from work just for the day, only to have her write me off from work for the entire week! The American in me thought, “But…I want to go back to work! This is too long!” However, my boss was completely understanding and reminded me that I shouldn’t come back to work too early, because a) I risk infecting other people and b) I might make myself sick again because I never properly healed.
3. You will rarely be prescribed medication in Germany.
This is something that I, and many of my friends from English-speaking countries, have struggled with. In November, I was very sick one week with a respiratory infection. I had a sore throat, no voice, and was coughing as though I was hacking up a lung. I’d had the same type of virus many times in the US, and the doctor would always prescribe an antibiotic, but my doctor here just wrote me off of work for the week and told me to drink lots of tea and take an over-the-counter medicine called “GeloMyrtol”(similar to Mucinex). So, I spent the week at home, in misery, just waiting it out. I had a friend at my last job who kept getting very sick, week after week, and the doctor still would not prescribe any medicine to her, even though it was obvious to everyone else that she needed it.
I have mixed feelings about this. Are antiobiotics (and medications in general) over-prescribed in the US? Absolutely. However, I believe that sometimes people need medication when they are that sick, and I wish there was more of a happy medium here. Yes, it often works to just rest and let the virus ride its course, but when someone is very sick and suffering from the illness, isn’t it better to prescribe medicine to alleviate their discomfort and help them to get well faster? With antibiotics, I likely would have been back on my feet in a day or two back in November, but instead, I missed a week of work and felt completely miserable for the entire week. Of course, I am not a doctor, and I could be completely wrong about this. My boyfriend, who is German, has a very different opinion of this than I do, and we have had several friendly debates on this topic. What do you think?
4. The Pharmacies
The Pharmacy (“Apotheke” in German) is set up a bit differently in Germany than it is in the US. Firstly, you will never find a pharmacy in a grocery store, nor do you have any pharmacy/convenience stores similar to CVS or Walgreens (we do have DM and Rossmann, however, which are like CVS and Walgreens, minus the pharmacy). In Berlin, there are usually at least one or two pharmacies within walking distance. When I first visited a pharmacy here, I was surprised to find that there seemed to be hardly anything available “over the counter,” but I quickly learned that I need only speak with the pharmacist, explaining my symptoms and asking for some medicine in order to get it. Most speak English if you ask politely, and they will explain how often you need to take the medication and anything else you need to know about it before sending you on your way. They will also usually give you a free pack of tissues and couple of cough drops in your bag, which I think is really lovely!
5. Health Insurance
It is mandatory in Germany to have health insurance, and yes, it can be rather expensive. If you have a work contract, your insurance is connected to your employer and automatically deducted from your pay check each month. As a freelancer, you are responsible for obtaining your insurance and you must pay for it yourself. The cheapest plans as a freelancer are usually around €250 per month, which can be quite a lot if you are not earning much.
If you have a work contract, you can choose between public or private insurance (freelancers generally can only get private insurance). I am with the public insurance Techniker Krankenkasse, or TK, which I am told is one of the better insurance companies to have, and I have been happy with them.
Some of the benefits of my public insurance: If you have to go to the hospital or the emergency room, it is completely covered. If you have a baby, everything is covered. If you are injured or very ill and cannot get around easily, they can send someone to your home to help you with household chores and errands. You can get some fitness classes paid for (although I admit that I haven’t figured out how this works yet!). You can get two pairs of free orthopedic in-lays for your shoes that are custom-made after they take a mold of your feet (these have helped me immensely!).
The downside: It can sometimes be difficult to find certain specialists who take public insurance, and the specialists (in my experience and from what I have heard from friends) often rush through your visits. Also, as mentioned before, insurance is expensive!
I never have to pay a co-pay at the doctor’s office, which seems fair, considering how much we pay for the insurance. The only place that I do have a co-pay is at the pharmacy (on the rare occasion that I am prescribed medicine), and the co-pays seem to be much higher than what I was paying back in the US.
Have you ever gotten sick in Germany or another country and been surprised by some of the differences you encountered? Please let me know in the comments!