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A beginner’s guide to healthcare in Sweden

Grattis on taking the plunge and deciding to move to Sweden! It won’t be long before you find yourself with a full-blown salty-liquorice habit and several daily fika alarms scheduled on your phone.

A beginner's guide to healthcare in Sweden
Photo: ArturVerkhovetskiy/Depositphotos

But hold on just a moment! Before you start enjoying the finer things in Swedish life, you should read up on the country’s healthcare system so you know who to call if you accidentally eat a bad herring.

We do have some good news – healthcare in Sweden is mainly tax-funded, which means all citizens get equal access to the same high-quality services.

To shed some light on the way it all works, we’ve pulled together some quick tips so you can get sorted minus the headache (and if you still get one, at least you’ll know where to buy painkillers).

Finding a doctor

If you need to see a doctor or nurse, you should contact your nearest healthcare centre, or vårdcentral, to arrange an appointment. All municipalities have a vårdcentral, and Sweden’s made it really easy for you to locate the one closest to you through 1177 Vårdguiden, an online and telephone service provided by the local counties and regions.

When you’ve decided on a healthcare centre, you should give them a call and ask to be registered. To complete your registration you must provide your Swedish personal number (personnummer), or your coordination number (samordningsnummer) if you’re here for under a year and have a taxable income. This entitles you to the same health care (at the same cost) as a Swedish citizen.

If you don’t yet have a personal number or anticipate you will be in Sweden for some time without one, you may want to look into private health insurance options like the packages offered by Cigna Global to ensure you have appropriate health cover at a reasonable cost.

Find out more about Cigna Global health insurance

Although not free, receiving medical and health care in Sweden is subsidised, and there is no charge for the care of children and young people under the age of 18. Fees can vary from one county or municipality to another, but are generally similar with a doctor’s appointment costing 100 to 300 kronor.

Sweden also has high-cost protection, högkostnadsskydd, which means there is a limit on the amount you are required to pay for health care each year that won’t exceed a maximum amount set by the county. This covers most kinds of healthcare, although daily hospital fees, vaccinations, missed appointments, and dental care are excluded.

If you aren’t fluent in Swedish, you can always ask how English-friendly the health centre is – often staff and doctors speak excellent English so you won’t encounter any language issues.

You are entitled to an interpreter which the healthcare centre can normally arrange for you. The service is free, but they may need to know in advance so it can be booked in. Of course, the details of your appointment are confidential and no information will be disclosed without your permission.

If your vårdcentral is closed and you have a minor medical issue, you can visit your local emergency unit or närakut, which can provide you with the same type of treatment. It isn’t absolutely necessary to make an appointment although ideally you would call up beforehand.

Emergency care

If you’re seriously ill or injured and need emergency medical care, you can visit the emergency room at one of Sweden’s 60 hospitals that provide 24-hour services.

Priority is given to patients in the most critical condition, so bear in mind that if after an initial assessment a doctor or nurse doesn’t think your problem is urgent you may end up waiting for several hours.

The fee for visiting an emergency room is between 220-400 kronor. If you’ve been in a serious accident and/or require ambulance assistance, you should call Sweden’s emergency number 112 free of cost from any mobile phone, landline or public payphone.

Specialist care

If you require specialist care, such as a dermatologist or physiotherapist appointment, the doctor at your health care centre can write you a referral. The referral, or remiss, will state the type of treatment you require and may also describe your current condition.

Sweden’s healthcare guarantee, vårdgarantin, ensures you will be offered an appointment with a clinic or specialist within 90 days.

In some counties you are able to skip the middleman and book an independent specialist without a referral. In most cases it is cheaper and easier to visit your healthcare centre first, and some clinics always require a doctor’s referral so it’s best to find out the demands of your chosen clinic first.

Pharmacies

Swedish pharmacies, or apotek, are ubiquitous and open during regular store opening hours, generally between 10:00-18:00 on weekdays and 10:00-14:00 on Saturdays. Pharmacists are able to offer advice and treatment for minor issues, and provide over-the-counter medication.

Prescription medicines which have been issued by your doctor or another authorised caregiver, are subject to high-cost protection and capped at 2,200 kronor. This does not include the purchase of non-prescription medicines, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or any hygiene products.

There are 24-hour pharmacies in the major cities, so if you urgently require medication call 1177 or visit the website for advice on where to go.

Insurance

There is a high-level of care in Sweden; however, many expats choose to take out private health insurance from an international provider. Knowing you are protected no matter what happens can give you peace of mind in a country where you are unfamiliar with the system.

Cigna Global offers health insurance services designed specifically for expats, so you’ll be covered at every level. Once you your health is protected, you’ll be free to explore your newfound country without the stress of worrying about what to do if something were to happen to you or a family member.

Click here to get a free quote from Cigna Global

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Cigna Global.

 
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HEALTH

EXPLAINED: What to do if you face a long wait for healthcare in Sweden

Sweden theoretically has a "healthcare guarantee" limiting your wait to see a GP to three days, and to see a consultant to three months. The reality is somewhat different. Here's what you can do if you face a long wait.

EXPLAINED: What to do if you face a long wait for healthcare in Sweden

What is Sweden’s ‘healthcare guarantee’? 

Sweden’s “National Guaranteed Access to Healthcare” or vårdgaranti, is a right to care, protected by law, that has applied in Sweden since 2005. You can see the latest version of the relevant laws here and here. Here is a summary of the guarantee on the website of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR).

Under the system, all patients are guaranteed:

  • contact with a primary care centre by phone, in-person, or by video-link on the day they seek care 
  • an appointment with a doctor, nurse, physio, or psychotherapist within three days of seeking help 
  • an appointment with a specialist doctor or consultant within 90 days of seeking help 
  • treatment or operation within 90 days, if the specialist considers this necessary 

Does the guarantee mean I have a right to treatment? 

No. If the doctor at the primary care centre, after examining you and questioning you, decides that there is no reason to refer you to a specialist doctor, they do not need to do so. 

Similarly, if the specialist doctor, after examining you, decides that no treatment is necessary, then your case is considered completed.  

Can the waiting times to see a specialist or to get treatment be longer than 90 days? 

Absolutely. In fact, they very often are. 

According to the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR), in February, 32 percent of patients had been waiting 90 days or more to see a specialist, and 43 percent of those who had seen a specialist had been waiting for treatment for more than 90 days.  

The situation in primary care was a little better, with 80 percent of those seeking care in contact with their primary care centre on the same day, and 83 percent having their case assessed by a doctor or nurse within three days. 

In addition, if you agree with your specialist doctor that you are willing to wait longer for an operation, then that wait doesn’t get counted in the statistics. 

So what can I do if I’ve been waiting longer than the guaranteed time? 

In reality, it’s actually less a guarantee than a target.

In primary care, there is no way for individual patients to complain that they have had to wait too long to see a doctor or nurse, or to cut their waiting times by citing the guarantee. 

“There’s no system for enforcing that guarantee,” says Emma Spak, the primary care doctor who doubles as section chief for SKR’s healthcare division. 

It would make no sense to set up a complaints line for those who have had to wait too long for phone contact with their primary care centre, she points out, when they could instead talk to patients seeking a primary care appointment in the first place. 

“It’s more of an incentive system for the regions,” she explains.

Every primary care unit and every region reports their waiting times to the national waiting time register, and then as part of the access agreement between SKR and the government, the regional health authorities receive a bonus if they meet their waiting times goal, or if they improve their waiting times. “That’s one way of sort of enforcing this guarantee,” she says. 

When it comes to specialist treatment, though, patients do have the right to demand to be examined or treated by an alternative specialist or hospital if they’ve had to wait longer than 90 days.

If your primary care centre issues you a referral to a specialist, and the specialist cannot then offer you an appointment within 90 days, the specialist, at the same time as offering you a later appointment, will often put you in contact with a unit at the regional health authority who will offer to find you an alternative specialist, either within the region or elsewhere in Sweden. 

The regional health authority will then have to reimburse any extra travel or hotel costs incurred by the patient.  

Similarly, if after examining you, a specialist cannot offer you treatment within 90 days, they will normally put you in contact with the same unit. 

Some regions have a phone line for people who have been waiting too long, or else you can contact your specialist or primary care centre and ask for information on seeking an alternative specialist. 

What happens if I don’t want to travel to see a specialist or get treatment? 

If your regional health authority offers you an alternative specialist, either within your region or in another region, so that you can get treated within the 90 day period, and you are unwilling to travel, then you lose your rights under the guarantee. . 

“If you’re in Gothenburg, and they say you have to go to Stockholm to get your treatment, and you say, ‘no, I want to go here, then then you’ve sort of forfeited your right, and you have to take what’s on offer,” Spak says. 

What happens if I agree with my specialist to wait longer? 

If your specialist says that they can treat you in four months, but also offers you treatment elsewhere within the guaranteed 90 days, and you choose to be treated by your specialist, then that counts as a patient choice, which will not then be counted in the statistics. 

“The specialist might say, ‘I don’t think you will get any worse for waiting two months extra, and if you wait five months, then I can make sure that you get your surgery done here, and we can make sure that you get all the aftercare and everything here as well,” Spak says. 

But these patient decisions are also counted in the statistics, and if a region sees a sharp rise in patients choosing to wait, SKR will tend to investigate. 

“If some region all of a sudden has a lot of patients choosing a longer waiting time, then we will call them and ask what’s going on here, because patients don’t tend to want to wait extra,” Spak says.  

Can I get financial compensation if I’ve been waiting too long? 

No. 

What other ways are there of speeding up the wait for treatment? 

Don’t underplay your symptoms

When drawing up their timetable for treatment and assessment, specialists will tend to give different patients different wait times depending on the urgency of their case.

For this reason, it’s important not to underplay your symptoms when visiting a primary care doctor, as they will tend to include a few lines on the urgency of your case when they write their referral. 

Stress your flexibility 

If you are unemployed, a student, retired, or have a very flexible job, it is worth telling your primary care doctor about this, because they may write in your referral that you are able to make appointments at very short notice. The specialist may then put you on their list of people to ring if one of their patients cancels. 

“Sometimes I write in my referrals that this patient could easily come at short notice, so please put the patient on the list for people you can call if there’s a time slot available,” Spak says. 

If you haven’t told your primary care doctor this, it’s not too late. You can ring the specialist yourself and tell their receptionist that you are very flexible, and ask to be put on the back-up list. This is particularly useful if you’re waiting for a scan, but you could also potentially work even if you’re waiting for heart surgery or a hip replacement. 

“If they’ve accepted you as a patient, and they’ve made sure that you fulfil the criteria for having that scan or whatever, then you can call them and say, ‘I have a really flexible job, I can come anytime if you have a gap,'” Spak says.

“A lot of people do that, because they can have [back-up] waiting lists. If you tell them ‘I work around the corner and I only need 15 minutes to be there’, then they might call you if someone doesn’t show up.” 

Ring up your specialist 

The queue system tends to be quite ad hoc, with no strict rules over who should be treated first, so it is often possible to reduce your wait by ringing up your specialist a few times a month, just to bring your case to their attention. Sometimes the receptionist will remember a slot that has just come free and bring forward your treatment while you are still on the telephone. 

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