Expat health in Geneva

I’m prompted by the experience of a friend who went to hospital in Geneva at 1am last night and was told that there was nobody to see her and that she could go to Carouge, which she did, to find out that seeing a doctor would cost 200CHF on the spot with an xray 700CHF. She limped home at 3am scared and having no idea what was wrong or sensible things she could do about it.

One of the most difficult things to do in a foreign country is look after yourself healthwise. It is much harder to do things like insist that you be looked after properly when there is a language barrier. In the US many people die each year because of interpreting mistakes between patients and doctors speaking different languages. But Geneva? International city? Expensive health insurance? Surely it can’t apply here, surely that’s just a third world US thing?

Soon after I arrived in Geneva, I got to hospital just before I had what is referred to as a ‘catastrophic collapse’. Doctors jumped to attention, did their best to save me, which they did. The food was good. The view was good. The birthday cake they gave me was good! I couldn’t have been looked after better. Except that I spoke not a word of French and their English was remarkably bad. While I was in there, I was telling Manny how bad it was; one of the things he is doing is building the software to stand between patient and doctor in this situation to translate for them and he didn’t really believe me. Until, that is, I found myself in there again a few days ago, and he translated for me. He saw for himself how, even in a wealthy country like Switzerland where English is so commonly spoken, nonetheless his software would be useful. The French doctor could speak in his language, I could understand and reply in mine, he would understand in his. Brilliant. What a pity the university hospital here has not continued its interest in the development of this software.

I found myself, the first time I was there, bombarded by questions by doctor after doctor, questions I didn’t really understand, giving answers they didn’t really understand. In Australia, hospitals have lists of a couple of hundred interpreters for every language that is likely to be spoken. You come in with a problem and a language, an interpreter is called in to help. Imagine my astonishment to find in a place like Geneva that there would be such a serious barrier between the doctors and me. And that when the language which was problematical was English. Incroyable!

There aren’t very good answers here, but being aware of the issues will help. Don’t be scared to try to get good attentive care, if you are here in Geneva, you have insurance, use it. And if you can, take somebody with you who speaks French, or organise somebody to be available by phone who can help.

In fact some staff at HUG are fluent English speakers, but that is very much the exception, so take precautions please!

I might add, in Geneva there are 24 hour doctors to whom you can go or who will visit you. I have only heard bad things about them from locals and indeed, when I had one come to visit me, he seemed so generally incompetent that I couldn’t help looking him up on the internet later. Sure enough, he had a botox business and moonlighted from it to make his money, I guess, from doing this kind of work. I was most uneasy when I saw his background. Nonetheless, I had all those issues. I’d just arrived in a new place, I didn’t speak the language, I was on my own. I hoped for the best. Sure enough, he had utterly misdiagnosed me and in the end I came within an hour or so of paying for it with my life. If I had left getting a taxi to the hospital for another hour, I would have died alone, in my apartment.

I hope this is a lesson to anybody reading this. Take care, be insistent, take measures if you can to overcome the language barrier since ‘the other side’ won’t be!


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