GP Culture Shock

One of the things that caused me the most culture shock upon our arrival in the Netherlands (apart from the weather) was going to see a doctor…or trying to. I quickly learned that the whole process was completely different to what I was used to and it took me a long, long time to wrap my head around it.

Appointment Making Time Slot:  In Australia, if I required an appointment to see my GP, I could call at any time between 8:00-20:00. In the Netherlands, I learnt that if I needed an appointment, I needed to call between 08:00-10:00. If I called at 10:30… too late, you get the answering machine that would inform you that you could call back the following day between 08:00-10:00. Extremely frustrating when you have a screaming child in pain.

Fight for your Appointment: If you do manage to call within this restrictive time slot, you will then be asked by the receptionist why you need the appointment. To me, this was unheard of! I’d like to speak to the doctor about that, not to the receptionist! Back home when I would call for an appointment, I was simply given my appointment time, no questions asked. Here I first have to pass an interrogation, answering a dozen questions, giving personal information to this total stranger with a power trip. Getting an appointment was almost mission impossible. You have to fight for it, and maybe even exaggerate your symptoms a little. I learned this lesson the long and hard way…

During the first few months after our relocation to the Netherlands, I called for an appointment for my 12 month old son, who had been crying from ear pain for a few days. The receptionist first asked why I wanted the appointment, then asked if he had a temperature. She then asked how long he had the temperature and I answered honestly, 24 hours. I was told to give him paracetamol and to call back if he still had the temperature after three days. No appointment given. Before I could argue my case, my call had been abruptly ended. In Australia I would have been given an appointment so that the doctor could actually check his ears, and if the infection was bad enough, he would then be given antibiotics.

My children both had regular ear infections in their first two years of life, so I was well aware of the symptoms and usual treatment. He was showing all those symptoms. I ended up calling back the day after informing them that the paracetamol was not helping enough, that he was still in a too much pain, was not able to sleep, and now had a higher temperature. Once again, I was told keep up the paracetamol and wait. I hung up the phone frustrated and in tears. There is nothing worse than seeing your child in pain and not being able to help.

The Battle to Get Treatment: The following day I finally managed to get the appointment, only to be told by the actual doctor that I should just give him paracetamol. That was it! Apparently, paracetamol is the solution to everything here. What about antibiotics?! I soon discovered that GPs rarely give out prescriptions for antibiotics in the Netherlands. Only in extreme circumstances. I get this, I do. There are so many reasons why antibiotics should not be used too often. But at that moment, I was so angry and felt so helpless. My poor little boy. Why did he have to go through all that pain unnecessarily?

A couple of days layer, after our son had endured several days of excruciating pain and several sleepless nights, both of his ears burst and fluid came out of them. I called the doctors again, as I had never seen this happen before and assumed the worst, only to be told by the receptionist in a cheery voice, oh thats great news, now the worst is over!! Arrrgghhhhh this was niet normaal (not normal)!!! I would have much preferred the doctor to take a look for himself and reassure me that all was well.

Exaggerate: I soon learnt that to get an appointment for my children in this country, then I was going to have to exaggerate; Yes, he has a high temperature of 39.5 (actually it is 38.5), Yes, he has had it for three days now (actually one or two), Yes, he is very very sick and needs to see a doctor as soon as possible (actually this is true and I am willing to lie to get it!). Finally I have mastered the technique of getting a GP appointment in the Netherlands.

Fantastic Health Care System: I should add that the Netherlands does have a great health care system. All regular, short-term medical treatment is covered by mandatory private health insurance (which is about 100 euros per month less than what we would pay for our family in Australia). I have never paid an additional cent out of pocket for any visits to the doctor, dentist, optometrist, physiotherapist, pediatrician, or for any prescribed medicine. I know that we will always be covered for surgery, ambulance transportation or treatment when/if required. For that I am very grateful.

In addition, if you need to visit the emergency department at any hospital, the whole process is extremely efficient! In Australia, at a hospital’s emergency ward on a weekend or evening, you can be waiting for several hours before being seen by the doctor and then have to wait again before being X-rayed if needed. Here in the Netherlands, when my daughter broke her wrist, we were in and out of the hospital within 60 minutes! She was checked by the doctor, X-rayed, seen by the doctor again, and set in plaster, all within this time! So a normal GP appointment may be hard to obtain here, but if emergency medical attention is needed, the system will take care of you immediately and with care.

Find a GP that you and your family are comfortable with: We have since changed GP’s. We are now with a new GP who is a mother herself and genuinely listens to a mother’s intuition and concerns. She will thoroughly examine her patients and make you feel like you are well taken care of. She is also more than happy to speak English with me when I am struggling to understand or express myself in Dutch. As an added bonus, the window of opportunity to make an appointment at our new clinic is a little larger (08:00-12:00). However, I do still have to exaggerate my way through the front-line interrogations before I can see her… One day when they ask me why I want an appointment, I may finally grow the balls to be able to say “That’s private and I’d rather discuss this with the doctor herself”. That is, once I figure out how to say this confidently in Dutch.

How do you find the whole process of making an appointment to see your GP here in Holland, and how does this compare to your home country?



6 thoughts on “GP Culture Shock

  1. This is so true! And a very good lesson I also learnt here when it comes to get an appointment, is exaggerating! Enjoyed reading it!


  2. Hello Kristen. This is a very well written of you. Its definitely useful for new expat like me who have just landed in this country. I enjoy really much reading your blog, your way of writing, your comparison between countries and even the font you use endorse me for looking up your blog every day. You took lots of my tears following your sister’s death.
    I am waiting for your new note and hope you have a wonderful life in the Netherlands.


  3. I have learned that I have to actually cry in order to get what I need here. I’ve never had to resort to that in the US or in Spain… but in the NL, they don’t like it when you get emotional. We have had some horrible experiences with the medical system here and I just keep hoping that my kids stay healthy so I don’t have to make the dreaded call to the GP!


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