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Why Getting Sick Is Different in France

After several days of a sore throat and increasingly creaky voice, I decided today it was time to go to the doctor. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been sick in France, or the first time I’ve gone to the doctor. But in coming home from the pharmacy, I got to thinking about how illness, something which seems straightforward, is actually viewed differently from country to country.

First thing’s first-I’ve found that many of the actual illnesses I’ve had since I’ve been in France are different from what I’ve had in the US recently. In other words, the germs here are different. I’ve had infections and illnesses in the past several years that I’ve either never had before, or haven’t experienced since I was a child.

This also leads to the next difficulty: vocabulary. I quickly learned that it’s not as simple as only translating whatever symptom or illness I had in English into French. This was evident right away when I tried to understand the difference between a ‘rhume’ and ‘enrhumé’. The first is essentially a cold, but the second is an adjective to describe, I guess, a cold-like state. Although a person who is ‘enrhumé’ doesn’t necessarily have a full-blown cold.

And then there’s the term I had to use today (sadly not for the first time), an ‘angine’ which is the French word for throat infection. I’ve also had before in France an ‘angine blanche’ which means a serious throat infection.

And not to leave out the scary sounding ‘gastro’ which is essentially the stomach flu.

All of this to say that the actual description and vision of some of these illnesses is different from one language to another.

This also leads me to another point I realized when getting a blood test for cholesterol level. When I got the cholesterol test back, first of all I couldn’t understand it. The categories were in different units than in the US. And while I had tested for somewhat high cholesterol in the US over the past 5 years, my French doctor assured me that I was within the norm in France. So I realized different countries have different measures for health-related issues. I heard something similar from an Italian friend who consulted doctors both in the US and in Italy during her pregnancy. She said that the doctors in each country estimated a different delivery date.

Of course one of the major differences in France is the health care system, which in my opinion and experience works great. I’m in on the general, national health care system, for which I have a green card (my ‘carte vitale’) with my photo. Every time I go to the doctor’s office, the dentist, or the eye doctor, they swipe my card and it has my personal information on it. I also adhere to a private supplementary insurance, that covers extra expenses not included in the national system. This costs me about 30 euros a month and means that most of the time when I go to see my general practitioner, I don’t have to pay for the visit. And if the doctor can write me the right prescription, I often don’t have to pay for medication either.

Prescription medication can include stronger drugs, but in my case today, it also included aspirin and ibuprofen that I didn’t need to pay for since it was part of my prescription.

My arsenal of prescription medication (essentially ibuprofen and paracetamol) from my doctor's visit
The French health care system is complicated to understand, though, since it functions on a basis of reimbursement. So when I went to see my dentist and had to pay 60 euros out of pocket for the visit and x-rays, about 40 percent of that was reimbursed a month or so later first by the national health care system, and then the rest by my private insurance.

We tend to think that our health, our bodies and sicknesses are fixed categories, but like most other things, they are culturally influenced.  As you can imagine, this can cause difficulty when you’re a foreigner and need to get medicine from a pharmacy, describe your symptoms to a doctor, or even more difficult, understand the doctor’s assessment of your illness. 

So remember: wash your hands, take your vitamins, and don’t get sick in the first place ! 


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