CONTRIBUTED BY LUCY B.
Visiting the pediatrician in your native language is stressful enough. Doing it in Germany adds a whole new level of worries.
When you start out, you want to keep two things in mind: there will be language issues and then there will be cultural issues. Medicine is often its own culture within a culture, so learning the lingo and practices will help make things smoother. If you want to find a doctor, start with asking some parents at the park who their doctor is. They will usually give you an honest opinion. You can also see if your particular part of town keeps a list of businesses, and then search for a doctor near your home. Our Stadtteil puts out a yearly phone directory with local doctors grouped by specialty.
If you’ve been in Germany for a while, you might already know that the idea that “everyone speaks English” in Germany is a little misguided. In a lot of cases, the doctor may speak English very well, but that doesn’t mean the whole of the office staff will. Knowing how to ask for what you want, like an appointment, and then the times and days available, whether it’s an emergency or not and the basics of your kid’s in German will help you get help faster and more efficiently. A quick Google search will get you to all kinds of glossaries just for this purpose. Keep in mind that temperature, weight and height are all measured in metric here. If you only have a Fahrenheit thermometer at home, get ready to do some conversions before you call about your kid’s fever. Alternatively, you could just pick up a Centigrade one at the drug store for about 5 Euros.
In Germany, a lot of the medical documentation is your responsibility. The two basic booklets are the Untersuchungsheft (a yellow book about the size of a composition notebook) for well visits and check-ups and the Impfbuch (a smaller yellow book about the size of a passport) for vaccinations. After about 5 mix-ups when I brought the wrong yellow book, I just taped the tiny one inside of each kid’s larger one. Now I can grab both at the same time. Most likely, the staff won’t remind you about immunizations or appointments. Luckily, there’s a guide to when your child needs checkups on the front of your Untersuchungsheft, so you can keep track yourself. Like most doctors’ offices in the US, expect to call a month or more ahead of time if you want to have an appointment for a basic examination. They take a long time and get booked up quickly. If you want to do immunizations at the same time, you need to make sure to mention it when you make the appointment. Some immunizations are optional and need to be ordered from the pharmacy ahead of time. The doctor’s office will explain the process if this is the case.
One major difference I noticed right away was that our doctor’s office closes for 2 hours at lunchtime. That means that from about 1-3pm, no one answers the phones. I figured out, however, that usually this time is used to catch up with appointments that ran over or were delayed in the morning. I suspect our doctor really only has about 30 minutes to eat his lunch. Many doctors’ offices are closed all day Wednesday or just Wednesday afternoons. This is usually compensated by at least one night a week of available evening appointments. We’ve visited our doctor as late as 8:30pm for an urgent problem. Pediatricians usually do same-day appointments for urgent problems. Of course, you should always call an ambulance or go to the hospital for a true emergency. The number (Europe-wide) for an ambulance is 112.
German doctors go on vacation a lot, and sometimes for two weeks at a time. In our case, it always seems to happen when one of the kids gets sick. I usually get out a pen and paper before I call since the answering machine message will always give you the names, addresses and phone numbers of the doctor’s substitutes either in your part of town or nearby.
In comparison to the US, I have found doctors in Germany generally pretty reluctant to prescribe antibiotics without a very clear case for them. There’s also a very different attitude toward pain management and cold medications (the overwhelming answer being “no”). Kids are expected to ride out their minor viruses, with the belief that it will improve their immune systems. German doctors might give you homeopathics, which are written on a green prescription form. Some people swear by these, and some think they’re bunk. I’ll let you make your own decisions on that one.
I also find that we get far more referrals to specialists than we did in the US. That might be more about our doctor than German doctors in general, though. Since the health system is required to cover specialist care, they are not hesitant to send you to one. If you’re not on the German insurance, you should always check on your coverage before you go.
Note: Click on photos for source.