On my experience getting health care for the first time in France…

Last week was not a pleasant one for me. I went to bed the evening of Tuesday, September 19 feeling okay, I think, then woke up in the middle of the night with my left ear inflamed and in a great deal of pain. “Oh, yikes!” I thought – in addition to “Ow, ow, ow, ow” – “I have NO idea how to get this checked out by a doctor.”

I knew I had bought some sort of insurance that I thought I needed to get the visa, but in retrospect, no one ever asked me for proof of insurance. But I had never really checked out the website. I had not yet applied for the Assurance Maladie, the French national health care that everyone is required to apply for, because something I had read a long time ago said that I couldn’t do that for three months. Now, in retrospect, I think that there may be different processes for students and those with other types of visas and that students could apply for it right away.

It has been a long time since I’ve had an actual ear infection, so of course I immediately went online to see what Dr. Google had to say. Well, reputable sources seemed to indicate that one should wait a couple days before going to see a doctor because often ear infections resolve on their own and it’s best not to get antibiotics if one doesn’t need any. So I took some acetaminophen and went back to sleep. By morning, the pain and inflammation had started traveling down my neck. Splendid! But, taking the wait a couple days thing seriously, I went to my classes figuring as long as I’m washing my hands and not touching people I probably was unlikely to spread an ear infection.

I once again awoke in the middle of the night, this time with pain in my right ear as well. More acetaminophen and back to sleep, a bit more worried that this thing seemed to be getting worse, and travelling, rather than getting better. I decided that before my class the next day (Thursday), I would stop by the University’s student health service.

The first time I went there, the door was locked and no one answered my knocking, even though it was during the “open” hours according to the schedule. I checked with some helpers in the Maison Internationale (International Office) to make sure I did it correctly, and they confirmed that I did and suggested that I just try again later. For the record, my experience thus far seems to indicate that schedules and general adherence to them seems a little bit “wibbly wobbly timey wimey” in France. So after my next class I returned and waited in the hall and eventually a nurse showed up.

When I described my symptoms (in French, of course – she didn’t speak English), she simply said the doctor was only in the health service on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and she was just a nurse and could not prescribe any medication. She didn’t even look in my ears. I guess nurses are not nurse-practitioners here – even when they are the only one in the office most of the time. I’m not sure exactly what her purpose was there but I digress. It seemed like this didn’t happen often – I’d think it would happen a few days every week, right? – and fumbled around looking for a place to recommend I go. The place she found, an “urgent care” facility, had already been mentioned to me by someone else, but she called them to confirm I could just walk in. The pain and inflammation on the right side was now also moving down my neck.

After my last class I took a bus and a tram to get to a part of town I hadn’t yet been to to get to the place. It was after 4:30 in the afternoon and there were at least 40 sick people in the waiting room. And there didn’t seem to be an intake window/desk that I could see and no signs pointing to one. Only this big box thing near the entrance that seemed to be how one “checked in.” Unfortunately I couldn’t make any sense of it except that it seemed to want my Carte Vitale (what you get for the Assurance Maladie) which I did not have. Sigh. I decided that I’d rather leave and take my chance with the ear infection than with sitting in a room full of unmasked sick people for who knows how many hours, even though I was, of course, masked before I walked in.

I went home. Went to bed. Woke up in the middle of the night again, this time with my left EYE screaming at me – pain, tears pouring, crustiness crusting. Oh, man!?! Really??? This was in addition to the ears, which were not improving. Now I’m freaking out more than a bit. What’s next? Sepsis?! I need some freaking antibiotics!!!

I went to class the next day, now both eyes and both ears clearly infected. One of my classmates suggested that I talk to our teacher, Tania, since she was from around here, knew the system, and spoke French, maybe she would have a clue as to what to do. I was hesitant to do so, because our teacher had just had her workload effectively doubled because the other teacher was out for some unknown (to us) reason. But I was desperate so I stayed during our lunch break and told her my tale.

She brought me to the Maison Internationale, which was closed for some unknown reason that they had not even shared with the teachers. But she could get in and so we had a cool place to try to figure this out. And I discovered that although she almost never uses it in class, she speaks and understands English quite fluently, which made things much easier. She recommended trying “Doctolib” – a French service like “Zocdoc.” I had indeed tried that already, but when I put in “médecin généraliste” the only listings that came up with any availability for today were pharmacies, not doctors. Tania thought it very strange, since we both knew that the pharmacist would not be able to do an exam and give out medications without an actual doctor’s prescription. I thought it was stupid website database programming, lumping all pharmacies in the wrong category, but Tania decided to call one of the closer pharmacies to see what was going on.

Well it seems that one CAN sort of see a doctor in some French pharmacies. Remember telemedicine, that many of us relied on during the height of the pandemic? Well, in France – or at least here in Avignon – they seem to have taken that a step further. Some pharmacies have a telemedicine mini kiosk office set up.

Medadom telemedicine kiosk in a pharmacy in Avignon.
Medadom telemedicine kiosk in a pharmacy in Avignon.

So I downloaded the Doctolib app, made an appointment for 1/2 hour after my classes ended about a 15 min walk away. After thanking Tania profusely, I was able to even grab a quick lunch before our classes resumed.

I did have to wait when I got there – the app warned me that I could have to wait anywhere up to an hour – but it was only around 1/2 hour after my appointment time and there was a cool, unpopulated area where I could sit and “rehearse” the history and look up words I didn’t know, in case the doctor did not speak English. The doctor did not speak English – so when she came on the screen we fumbled through my history. There was some difficulty with understanding the doctor’s follow-up questions, but we muddled through. Then she asked me to get the pharmacist, who she instructed on using (I think it was) device A in the picture, adding a sterile ear thingy, to look into my ears. I have a feeling that the pharmacist was not really used to doing this, so I think maybe the doctor would usually instruct the patient to use this instrument but really couldn’t with me because of the language barrier? I’m not sure.

But she confirmed that I did indeed have raging (my word, not hers) ear and eye infections that required antibiotics, and she wrote me prescriptions for both oral amoxycillin and azithromycin eye drops. She also “prescribed” some paracetamol for pain (more on this later). The scrips were immediately sent to and filled by the pharmacist, and I was on my way.

Cost? Well, I mentioned that I have insurance but that doesn’t even come into play because it doesn’t pay unless the bill is over €50, so it wasn’t even mentioned. The cost of the doctor visit (which would have been the same had I seen her at her office) was €25 and the meds another €25. So for a complete foreigner with no standing whatsoever in France, this urgent care situation cost about $54. I was quite pleased.

One weird, not terribly positive, thing that I discovered (I’m sure more will follow), though is that in France you can only get “acetaminophen” or “ibuprofen” from a pharmacy – not any other kind of store – and you have to ask the pharmacist for it, not grab it off the shelf. AND… You can only buy it in packages of 16 (reg strength acetaminophen) or 8 (extra strength acetaminophen) or 12 (ibuprofen). And my understanding is that one can only purchase two packages of any combination of those at one time. I think they they decided that people were taking too much of these meds “unnecessarily” and that’s not good. But I also think there was a shortage during Covid, so I’m pretty sure I don’t know all the nuances of the situation leading to the law.

Anyway, it’s Monday now and although the infection is not completely gone it has greatly abated and I am a much happier camper than I was last week. Yesterday I also stopped procrastinating and completed the Assurance Maladie application for my Carte Vitale. Now begins the months of waiting for the slow wheels of the legendary French bureaucracy to turn…