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What to do if you get sick in Sweden

When you get sick or injured in a new country it’s not always obvious where to go first. In Sweden, your local vårdcentral (health centre) would usually be your first port of call. Or, if you have Swedish personal number, there’s a smoother and quicker option in the form of healthcare apps like KRY.

What to do if you get sick in Sweden
Photo: sjenner13//Depositphotos

Healthcare apps are unquestionably convenient. They allow you to consult a doctor – or a psychologist – by video, often within just a few minutes and without the hassle of the waiting room. Simply knowing this can provide peace of mind if you’re living abroad.

But how do these virtual healthcare services fit into the traditional Swedish healthcare system? And is there a difference between using a healthcare app and visiting your local vårdcentral

“The bulk of health and medical costs in Sweden – including both traditional and virtual care – are paid for by county council and municipal taxes,” explains Rebecka Gardell, who works as a doctor at KRY. “Contributions from the national government are another source of funding. Patient fees cover only a small percentage of costs.”

Click here to download KRY

Unless it’s an emergency (in which case you should go directly to the emergency room, or call 112), patients can choose to either book an appointment at their local health centre – where the waiting time may be days or even weeks – or simply unlock their smartphone and open KRY. In cases where a physical exam isn’t required, the latter can save plenty of time – and money too.

“Virtual care is improving access and affordability of healthcare. It’s surprising how much you can do without being in the same room as the patient,” says Dr Gardell. “I see patients with everything from sore throats to urinary tract infections, skin conditions and even psychiatric problems. After the consultation, I can send patients for blood samples, refer them to specialists and write prescriptions – just like a doctor at a traditional health centre.”

KRY doctors are provided with very detailed instructions on which patients are suitable for treatment via video. Dr Gardell says that there’s no room for a doctor to guess which is why each patient fills out a questionnaire before an appointment to assess whether they are suitable or not.

“There is a strict set of guidelines and rules that we have to adapt to, in order to ensure patient safety and quality of care. That way, patients can feel secure at all times that things are being handled correctly,” she tells The Local.

For expats, it's reassuring to know that KRY offers healthcare in multiple languages. If you’re not comfortable consulting a doctor in Swedish, KRY is staffed with providers who speak Spanish, Arabian, English and more than 20 other languages. It's incredibly handy if you are unsure how or where to seek healthcare in Sweden to begin with.

Dr Gardell, who prior to joining KRY had worked for several years in local health centres and hospitals, explains that patients with conditions that are not treatable via video are given advice on where to go for a physical examination. In these cases, when patients are not diagnosed and/or treated, KRY does not charge any fee.

Download KRY to see a psychologist by video

KRY’s offer extends to mental health services such as helping expats who struggle with depression, a condition which can be triggered by moving to a foreign country. For these patients, KRY has dedicated doctors and psychologists providing treatment in the form of cognitive therapy and/or medication, depending on the individual’s needs.

“Moving to a new country can be very challenging, not least since you lack a personal safety net,” says Dr Gardell. “In Sweden, you also have to deal with the cold and the darkness that prevails during winter here. For me, it’s not uncommon to see anxiety, depression and sleeping issues in people who have moved here.”

And it’s not just patients who can benefit from turning to KRY first, says Dr Gardell.

“By reducing the number of unnecessary patient visits, KRY is actually relieving pressure on other parts of the healthcare system. Virtual healthcare is modern, it’s efficient and it’s time-saving – for you as a patient and for your doctor as well.”

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by KRY.

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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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