Stayin’ Alive: A foreigner’s take on Slovak healthcare.

For most foreigners, their very first experience with the Slovak healthcare system is gaining health insurance (a residency requirement). This first act reveals just how different the experience of seeking basic care can be for foreigners. Health insurance for foreigners from outside the EU is often more expensive and offers less coverage than that of the major state-run health insurance that other residents receive. This leaves those newly arrived in the country with difficult and costly decisions to make.

As they take these important decisions on, 3rd country migrants must also submit to a thorough physical exam. This is often a foreigner’s first exposure to doctors and hospitals in Slovakia. The experience can be bewildering and frightening, especially for those who do not speak Slovak. This was true for Robert from Boston, who lamented, “Those nurses had no time for someone not speaking Slovak. [They] basically dragged and pushed me from one bench to another piece of equipment. It was like an alien autopsy.”

Full Podcast Episode

Once a foreigner is established in the system, he or she can then begin their search for a local general practitioner. Naturally, they want to find doctors who can speak a common language, but even for those living in Bratislava, this is a tall order. Most are forced to select a doctor nearest to them, and rely on spouses or friends to serve as translators. This has prompted Sarah from the UK, who depends on her husband to attend each doctor’s visit, to improve her Slovak so that she may “maintain some dignity and some privacy.”

Bagman (My story about a bag and a trip to the doctor)

Unfortunately, eventually, most foreigners will need to use the services of specialists, or they may find themselves in a medical emergency. Again, speaking Slovak well can lessen the complications that arise from a lack of understanding of the system. Foreigners can be overwhelmed with the referrals process or lost in a complex of buildings full of signs in Slovak and nurses who do not have the patience to guide them.

However, once foreigners have a chance to see the doctors face to face, they discover that, despite the sometimes ramshackle appearance of the buildings, their care is mostly on par with that of other more developed systems around the world. Doctors are often well-trained and professional. Foreign patients receive the same quality of care as their Slovak neighbors, at a fraction of the cost of some western European countries. Some even prefer the care they receive here as compared with that of their rich home countries.

Not that the Slovak healthcare system is without problems. Foreigners often comment on the same issues that plague Slovak patients. There is a lack of young doctors with up-to-date knowledge, and many other highly skilled doctors have left the country due to low pay and structural challenges. The system must modernize to provide optimal care, and soap in the restrooms is a good place to start.

Our guests in this episode had many other observations and recommendations that come from a variety of experiences, both personal and professional. Looking at Slovak healthcare from their eyes can offer a path to improvement that both benefits Slovaks and foreigners alike.

Thank you to my guests: Sarah Doherty Sirlova, Suzanne Taylor, Navid, and Robert Zanetti

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This episode and my  series on the migrant experience have been made with support from Fjuzn, a program of the Milan Simecka foundation. Please follow them online at:

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