From Madrid to Palma de Mallorca: every year, Spain attracts a huge number of tourists from many different countries. The lively Spanish cities and the sun-drenched beaches can add up to a truly unforgettable holiday. But even the most blissful stay on the Iberian peninsula can be spoiled if a visit to the doctor becomes necessary. But armed with our key facts you will be able to navigate the system.
The Spanish health care system
In Spain, the first point of contact for a visit to the doctor is usually the local health centre (Centro de Salud). Here, you will find GPs, paediatricians and physiotherapists, among other professionals. The government's requirement for the Spanish health system is that the nearest health centre should be no more than 15 minutes away for any patient, whether they live in major cities such as Madrid, Barcelona or Málaga, or in rural areas.
The health centres provide primary care. If necessary, the GP will refer the patient to a specialist and decide how urgent the treatment is. Without a referral from a GP, the specialist doctors can only be consulted in an emergency. One of the weaknesses of the Spanish health system is the long waiting period for an appointment with a specialist. Very few holidaymakers stay in the country long enough to be able to attend such appointments.
As each individual Spanish region is responsible for organising the healthcare system in their area, there are major regional differences in the quality of care. While in the Canary Islands 81% of Spaniards wait two months or more for an appointment with a specialist, in the Murcia region only 32% of patients wait that long.
Seeing a doctor in Spain without international health insurance
Travellers should check before their trip whether their health insurance covers the costs of medical treatment in Spain. If this is the case, a doctor can be consulted in one of the state health centres. However, some Spanish health centres will still require a cash payment. In addition, dental treatment in Spain is not covered by the national health system and has to be paid for privately. The patient does not have the right to choose a doctor Patients are expected to go to their nearest health centre.
It is not usually necessary for tourists to be able to speak Spanish when they see a doctor. Doctors in private practices often speak English, especially at popular tourist resorts such as Mallorca. This is convenient for travellers, but it can be costly. Often, the patient has to pay in advance and then try to get the money back from their health insurance company. Sometimes this is only partially successful. Some health insurance companies are now cooperating with Spanish private doctors. In this case the bill is settled directly between the private doctor and the health insurance company.
In principle, Spanish hotel staff tend to refer tourists to private doctors. If you do not want to advance the costs yourself or even pay them in full, you should make sure before travelling that you know where to find a state health centre. In addition, it is advisable to clarify who will bear the costs before starting treatment.
Seeing a doctor in Spain if you have health insurance
If you have valid international health insurance cover you can, in most cases, also seek treatment from private doctors. Although initially you will have to pay the costs, your health insurer will normally reimburse you when you send them the original invoices. However, this only applies to new acute illnesses. If a pre-existing condition gets worse during your holiday, the insurance company will not normally take over the cost of medical treatment.
In addition, some policies exclude certain other services and benefits. That’s why it’s important to check your existing insurance cover carefully. Depending on the terms of your health insurance policy, a medical repatriation from Spain to your home country may also be covered by the insurance.