What happens when you get sick in Norway // My Story & All you need to know

If you're a regular visitor, you might have noticed that I took some time off recently and didn't publish a single article in 5 weeks. While we all know how life can get in the way sometimes, my excuse for my absence is that I got sick - and not just with the flu.

After 2 visits to the emergency room at Stavanger University Hospital, on the second of which I was admitted for 5 days, I now know why my body has been unable to function properly for the past couple of months. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an auto-immune disorder, that (to spare you the nasty details) causes for my immune system to fight one of my organs for no apparent reason at all, which in turn has me feeling incredibly exhausted and tired - and leads to internal bleedings...

While that all (luckily might I add) sounds way more dramatic than it actually is and I'm happy to report that my medicine is doing its job, I am forced to take things at a slower pace from now on, so forgive me if new articles don't follow my prior posting schedule.


Today I wanted to take the time to not only update you on myself, though, but also fill you in on the Norwegian healthcare system that I've now been forced to get to know a lot better than I ever did before in recent weeks.

Whether you're a tourist coming to Norway on holiday or planning to move to the country, in this article I'd like to tell you everything I've learnt about what happens when you get sick in Norway!

 

Getting sick as a tourist in Norway

While you surely don't plan on getting sick on your long-awaited trip to Norway, it pays off to come prepared! The number one rule for visiting Norway and making it home again in one piece is to simply not be a jerk - aka, DO NOT pose for a selfie at the edge of a cliff, for starters!

Then again, hiking in Norway is a whole different ballgame than hiking in flat countries and while most tourists come to Norway to experience the spectacular nature and landscapes, most people simply come unprepared.

No, you cannot hike Preikestolen in sandals or heels. Yes, you should bring proper equipment, starting with good hiking boots, a waterproof backpack for your belongings, plenty of water and food, warm and waterproof clothing and last but not least, a certain amount of stamina or else you won't make it.

mountain hiking in norway

The Norwegian Red Cross is forced to rescue tourists off mountains all summer long - in many cases because tourists simply underestimate the hike. So, as a little word of warning: No hike in Norway is particularly easy! The hike to Preikestolen takes a total of 5-6 hours while getting to Trolltunga takes 12 (!) hours. Keep that in mind before making any hiking plans.

And if something does happen to you, even though you took precautions - be it a twisted ankle, an allergic reaction or simply the flu, here's all you need to know about receiving healthcare in Norway as a tourist: 
 

  • emergency numbers

First things first, you want to make sure to save the Norwegian emergency numbers on your phone. These are:

  • 110 for the fire department
  • 112 for the police
  • 113 for the ambulance
  • 1412 is the emergency number for the hearing-impaired
  • and 116117 is for the "doctor's on duty" (legevakt) - this number can be called if your situation isn't life-threatening and doesn't require an ambulance but is nonetheless serious and can't wait until the next day

These numbers are free of charge but should only be used when necessary, of course.

 

  • Urgent Care Centres

In Norway, there's a difference between the emergency room (akuttmottak) and the urgent care centre or so-called "doctor's on duty" (legevakt). In order to be treated at the emergency room of the hospital (that is, unless you're in a life-threatening condition), you need to get a letter of referral from a doctor. 

fjord norway trollskogen hundvåg stavanger

That's why, if you're not sure where you should turn to after having been in an accident or fallen ill, you should call the urgent care centre (phone: 116117) first. On the line, you'll get to describe your symptoms/injury to a healthcare professional who will then determine what will be done next. You might get an appointment at the urgent care center right away or you might be referred to a local GP who has time to have a look at you. 

The urgent care centre also provides medical (and helps with legal) care in case of rape and/or psychiatric conditions. 

 

  • costs and insurance

Citizens of Norway, as well as tourists, need to pay a co-payment for medical treatment received at a local GP's office or the urgent care centre/emergency room - that is, unless you're admitted to hospital. Standard co-payment rates are between 150kr and 350kr. Tourists also have to pay a non-refundable patient fee in addition.

If you're a EU/EEA/Swiss citizen and have a European Health Insurance Card, don't forget to bring it on your trip to Norway, so that you're reimbursed for your expenses by your national health insurer back home. Note, however, that the card is not valid in Svalbard! If you're visiting Svalbard, you must have private travel insurance!

For tourists outside the EU/EEA/Switzerland, the following applies:

As a tourist from a country outside the EU/EEA and Switzerland, you are not entitled to reimbursement by the Norwegian National Insurance Scheme for medical treatment you receive. Nor are you entitled to subsidisation of your return journey to your home country.
— HelseNorge.no

There's an exemption to the rule if you're Australian: Australian citizens have the right to be "reimbursed for necessary expenses on giving birth and for oxygen therapy and dialysis", according to HelseNorge

 

  • medicine/prescriptions

If you need to take regular medicine, make sure to bring these from your home country. To avoid trouble at customs (depending on what kind and how much of it you're carrying), it can be wise to get a letter from your GP stating that you need to take the medication. Read more about the topic at the Directorate of Norwegian Customs.

In general, getting your hands on medicine in Norway is a bit trickier than in some other countries as the rules are much stricter. You're, for instance, only allowed to buy one nose spray at a time, so if you're whole family comes down with the flu on your trip, you better prepare for more than just one trip to the store... ;)

Common medicine that you can buy at the grocery store (use the machine near the register) or at the pharmacy, which don't require a prescription are:

  • Ibuprofen / Paracetamol (pain/fever)
  • Cetirizin (allergies)
  • Loperamid (diarrhea)
  • Omeprazol/Pantoprazol (acid reflux/stomach issues)
  • Nose spray
  • Eye drops
fjord norway trollskogen hundvåg stavanger

Knock on wood that you don't have to have to make your own experience with the healthcare system in Norway while you're on holiday, but if you do, I hope this overview helps!

 

Getting sick as an expat in Norway

When you first move to Norway, there are so many things that need to be done that healthcare might not be the first priority on your list. Between registering at the police office, searching for a job and getting your own bank account, it might come as a relief for you to read that there's nothing special you need to do in order to receive healthcare in Norway as an expat.

Once you're an official resident of the country and have received your social security number, you're treated as everyone else in the healthcare system!

The following overview will hopefully come in handy, though, to explain you how the healthcare system works in Norway and what you can expect from it:

 

  • emergency numbers

Now that you're living in Norway, you might want to get familiar with the Norwegian emergency numbers:

  • 110 for the fire department
  • 112 for the police
  • 113 for the ambulance
  • 1412 is the emergency number for the hearing-impaired
  • and 116117 is for the "doctor's on duty" (legevakt) - this number can be called if your situation isn't life-threatening and doesn't require an ambulance but is nonetheless serious and can't wait until the next day, for example when your GP's office is closed

These numbers are free of charge but should only be used when necessary, of course.

 

  • getting a GP

Upon arrival to Norway and getting your social security number, you will be assigned a local GP automatically, and will receive the contact details of the GP's office via post or electronic message via Helfo

This might take up to 6 months, depending on availability, so if you need medical treatment in the meantime, you might be forced to find a random GP office with availability or head to a private clinic (which is more expensive but also comes with a much shorter waiting time to get an appointment). 

borrestrand jæren rogaland

Please note that in order to receive an appointment with a specialist (gynecologistdermatologist etc.) you need to get a referral from your GP first. If you're on prescription medicine, it's also your GP who will renew possible prescriptions. 

If you're not satisfied with the GP you've been assigned for, or if you'd like to have your GP's office a little closer to home, you're allowed to change your GP twice a year, and one more time if you move to another town. If you move within Norway, it's up to you to change your GP's office, so don't forget this!

This is done via Helfo as well, and there you can also find an overview of all GPs in your local area, along with information on how many spaces they have available and how long their potential waiting lists are. 

If you're curious to see what other people have said about certain GPs, you can check out Legelisten.no. Here, people write reviews of their GP and give ratings for availability, service and communication. However, these reviews should be taken with a pinch of salt as they're highly subjective and don't necessarily reflect on the skills of the GP in question.

 

  • Getting an appointment with a specialist 

If you're referred to a specialist by your GP, be prepared for some waiting time. The healthcare system in Norway is certainly quite efficient if you need immediate help, however, hospitals tend to be quite full and specialists tend to be quite busy, so unless you have first priority, you need to calculate some waiting time before you get an appointment at a specialist's.

The average waiting time in Norway to receive such an appointment in March 2018 for instance, was 57 days (according to Helsedirektoratet). 

trollskogen hundvåg stavanger off the beaten path

Keep in mind that Norwegians tend to take 3-4 weeks of annual leave during the summer and that this goes for healthcare professionals as well, so waiting times in the summer could be even longer in some cases.

 

  • costs and insurance

As a resident of Norway, you're automatically part of the Norwegian National Insurance Scheme and don't have to pay extra for healthcare insurance, with travel insurance being an exception. 

If you're travelling around Europe on a regular basis, don't forget to order the European Health Insurance Card from Helfo, so that your medical expenses are covered on your holiday as well. 

When receiving medical care, every citizen of Norway has to pay a share. For instance, a consultation at your local GP costs approx. 150kr while a simple test (i.e. a blood sample) costs ca. 50kr in addition. If you receive treatment at a specialist's and/or at an out-patient institution, you have to pay ca. 350kr as co-payment. An x-ray test costs ca. 250kr.

You pay the co-payment directly at your GP's/specialist's office or receive the bill in the post if you're receiving out-patient care at the local hospital. 

Treatment, as well as medication, for patients that have been admitted to hospital, is completely free of charge. 

If your medical expenses (that is, the total charges for consultations, tests, and prescription medicine) exceed 2250kr over the course of one calendar year, you'll receive an exemption card and don't have to pay any more co-payments or prescription medicine yourself until the end of the year. 

In order to receive the card (and possible refunds once you pass the 2250kr margin), you should keep your Helfo account updated with your bank account number. All medical expenses that count towards the exemption card will be registered in your Helfo account automatically. 

Please note that visits to the dentist do not count towards the regular exemption card and, with a few exceptions that you can read more about here, have to always be paid in full by the patient. Dental care in Norway is only free for children (0-18 years). 

 

  • medicine/prescriptions

Non-prescription/over-the-counter-medicine (i.e. Ibuprofen or Paracetamol) can be bought at your local grocery store or pharmacy and has to be paid in full by yourself. Whether or not you have to pay for prescription medicine depends on the kind of prescription you receive from your doctor.

More serious and/or long-lasting health conditions often end up with a "blue prescription" (blå resept), which means that you'll only have to pay a share of the total costs for the medicine. In general, you'll pay until you get your exemption card, but never more than 520kr at a time. 

Other prescriptions that will expire eventually usually involve a "white prescription" (hvit resept), which means that you'll have to pay these in full. 

life in norway stavanger

As Norway tends to do things electronically, you'll also most likely get an electronic prescription which means that you don't need to visit your GP's office in order to pick up the prescription but that you instead, can go to any pharmacy of your choice and receive your medicine directly. 

Depending on the services your GP offers, you might however have to call or visit your GP first whenever you need your prescription to be renewed. 

 

My experience with the Norwegian healthcare system

During my 3,5 years of living in Norway so far, I never had to visit a doctor once, so you can imagine how I went through quite a steep learning curve when I got sick last month - from having to call legevakt to heading to the emergency room and being admitted to hospital, I feel like I know the system in and out now.

As I had put off changing my GP when we moved to Stavanger as I never needed to visit the doctor during my 3 years in Tromsø (big mistake - don't do the same!), I found myself in a bit of a tricky situation when I got sick and didn't have a local GP office - which is why I had to call legevakt.

While the healthcare professional on the other end of the line (and indeed, every single nurse and doctor I met along the way) was super nice and understanding, I ended up feeling a bit left alone by the system to begin with, as the legevakt didn't share my sense of urgency when I first experienced symptoms of my illness and arranged an appointment at a local GP office for me - who, in turn, sent me to the emergency room straight away and couldn't quite fathom why legevakt didn't do the same.

view of stavanger rennesøy

On my first visit to the emergency room, I was unfortunately diagnosed wrongly and sent home again with the notice to come back for another test in a few week's time. One week forward and my symptoms didn't get better but worse, so after another visit to the same GP and another trip to the emergency room, I was then finally admitted to hospital and got a diagnosis one day later. 

All this I mainly have to thank the GP for who took me on even though I wasn't on his patient list (I now am, though!), and who took me seriously right from the beginning and made sure to call the hospital which led to me finally being admitted and treated properly the second time around. Hence why I'd urge you to find a good GP who takes time for you if necessary - even if that might mean that he or she gets poor waiting time reviews on Legelisten.

Even though it did take a total of 10 days from the major outbreak of my illness to my diagnosis, I know that it could have taken much longer so all in all, I'm totally satisfied with the Norwegian healthcare system so far. All healthcare professionals I met during my time in hospital were very nice and caring, and never appeared rushed or stressed. 

visiting norway how to prepare

Now that I have my diagnosis, I have follow-up appointments scheduled and there'll even be a course for others in the same boat, held by the hospital to make adjustment easier - for free! And that's in addition to the ton of information I received while still being in hospital. 

Overall, I'd like to say that even though the Norwegian healthcare system is often perceived as slow and expensive upon first view, from my experience, it's the opposite if you're in need of urgent care and I guess that counts for quite a lot! Nonetheless, whether you're a tourist or an expat, I do hope that you don't have to experience the healthcare system first-hand but if you do, you can be sure to be in safe hands!

PS: Fjord views from the hospital bed and Norwegian comfort food (I can now officially say that I do like lapskaus) certainly help with recovery ;) 

Disclaimer: I'm not a healthcare professional and merely report what I personally know in this article. All information can change / become outdated at any given time, but is correct at the time of publishing (May 2018). 

Side note: As I genuinely want to make things easier for you in case you get sick in Norway and not benefit from it, there are no hidden travel insurance affiliate links whatsoever anywhere in this post! 

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