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How the Swedish healthcare system works

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How the Swedish healthcare system works
The first time you need healthcare help in a new country can be nerve-wracking. Photo: Subbotina/Depositphotos
12:00 CEST+02:00
Arrive in Sweden: check. Find an apartment: check. Start your new job: check. Get sick with the flu: ... check. You don't have any control over when you fall ill, and it can be extra stressful if you're in a new or unfamiliar country. Here's what you need to know about getting sick in Sweden.

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Preparation

You might not be able to plan when you get sick, but you can at least prepare for it in advance, ensuring an easier experience if illness strikes. One difference between Sweden and many other countries is that regular medical check-ups are not the norm in Sweden; instead, you just visit the doctor when you need advice or treatment for a specific issue.

It's generally a good idea to register at a local healthcare centre (vårdcentral), though even if you don't register, you'll still be able to book appointments – you'll just need to fill out some quick forms on your first visit. 

If you have a Swedish personal number, you're automatically in the system and will be eligible for the same healthcare treatment and (low) costs as Swedish citizens. The same applies to anyone with a coordination number (samordningsnummer) and to EU citizens who have an EHIC card (those without the card can apply for a refund of the cost difference in their home country). 

Things are more complicated if you don't have this ten-digit code, which might be the case if you're in Sweden on a temporary work or student visa. Sweden has special agreements with Algeria, Australia, Quebec, and Israel, so if you're from one of those four locations, you pay the same price as Swedish citizens for emergency care, but the actual (non-subsidized) cost of ordinary care. Other non-EU citizens will pay the actual cost of both emergency and ordinary care. This could add up quickly, so taking out health insurance could save you money long-term.

What to do if you get sick

If you fall ill, one of the first steps to take should be to call 1177: this is a free healthcare phoneline, where you'll be able to speak to a nurse in Swedish or English. This line is open 24/7 so you can always call for free advice. They will often be able to give you advice over the phone, depending on the issue, and will let you know if and when you should seek treatment, and where you need to go if that's the case.

There's also plenty of information online at the 1177 website, which offers advice on how to treat many common symptoms.

Note: in emergencies, you should call 112 and/or travel to the nearest hospital emergency department (akutmottagning). However, if you turn up with a non-emergency illness or injury, you'll face a long wait as emergency cases are prioritized, and you may be sent elsewhere for treatment.


Emergency departments are always well signposted. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

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For immediate treatment

If the issue needs immediate attention (in other words, you can't wait until the next working day) but you don't need hospital treatment, you should go to a närakut (local emergency unit). These are usually open until late in the evening, and treat things such as concussions, broken bones, severe allergy or stomach problems, and wounds in need of immediate treatment.

Non-emergencies

In non-emergency situations, the usual port of call is the vårdcentral (health centre). This might be called something different depending on where you are in the country, and some common alternatives include: husläkarmottagning, familjeläkarmottagning, hälsovårdscentral, and distriktsläkarmottagning. These are the places to go for treatment of ongoing conditions, urgent but not serious illnesses or injuries, as well as long-term help with diet, exercise, or addiction problems. If you need to see a specialist doctor, this is usually done by seeing a general practitioner first and asking for a referral.

Book an appointment online or by calling up; often, especially in larger cities, you'll have to leave your phone number and personal number on an answering machine first and will be called back later. It's also possible to turn up in person and ask for an appointment, and some centres will offer an open surgery time slot where you can be seen without an appointment.

Health centres in Sweden are usually only open during day time on weekdays, though some stay open into the evening and at weekends. These are called jourcentral or jouröppen mottagning, and a full list and map of their locations can be found here. You can call and make an appointment in advance if possible to reduce your waiting time, or turn up without an appointment.

How long you'll have to wait for an appointment at a health centre depends on factors such as location, time of year (expect longer waits during summer, when many Swedes go on holiday, and the typical flu seasons!), the popularity of a particular health centre, and how serious your condition is judged to be when you ring up. However, many health centres will keep some appointment slots free for emergency same-day appointments, which you can usually book by calling up first thing in the morning.

For all appointments, you'll need to bring your ID card if you have it, and money or a card to pay for the treatment.


A doctor measuring blood pressure. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

Costs

Swedish healthcare is not free, though it is heavily subsidized by the state through county and municipal taxes (with an exception for care not provided for medical reasons, such as cosmetic plastic surgery).

Fees vary slightly between Sweden's different counties, but you'll typically pay between 100-300 kronor for a visit to a general practitioner, 50-220 kronor to see a nurse or physiotherapist, and 200-350 kronor for a specialist doctor, including paediatricians and gynaecologists. Emergency room visits are 220-400 kronor and if you need to stay overnight in hospital, there's a daily fee of up to 100 kronor.

Some extra conditions apply, which again vary depending on where in the country you are. For example, you may also be charged for use of an ambulance, or if you fail to turn up to a scheduled appointment.

The good news is there's an annual cap on the amount you can spend, meaning that if you reach this ceiling, all subsequent visits will be free (högkostnadsskydd). In some counties, this is all tracked digitally, so you don't need to do anything and will just be told once your visits are free. However, in other counties, you are responsible for keeping track of your receipts, which you'll need to show to healthcare providers in order to get the 'frikort'. Make sure to find out which of these systems applies to you on your first visit so you don't end up paying unnecessarily.

Doctors will typically speak good English, but you also have the right to an interpreter, free of charge, if needed – just make sure to mention this when you first make your appointment.


Photo: Tore Meek/NTB scanpix

READ ALSO: What you need to know about giving birth in Sweden

Prescription medicines

Perhaps you know what's wrong with you – a recurring issue or seasonal cold – but need to get hold of the right medicines to treat it. In this case, you can visit a pharmacy (the state-owned Apoteket is by far the most common chain, but there are a growing number of private pharmacies too) for advice.

Regulations on which medicines can be obtained with or without a prescription vary slightly in different counties, so you may be able to get what you need on the spot, such as pain relief, common cold and flu treatments, skincare treatments and so on. Some common medicines are also available to buy from supermarkets, though only for over-18-year-olds.

However, if you need a prescription medicine, you'll have to see a doctor first following the steps outlined above. Prescriptions in Sweden are handled digitally, so there's no slip of paper: the doctor will register your required medicines to your personal number, so you just need to tell this to a member of staff at any pharmacy to collect your medicine.

There is a cost for prescriptions, but this is also partially subsidized by the state and there's a high cost ceiling of 2,200 kronor, so again, once you reach this amount, you won't be charged any more.

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