Getting medical care in a foreign country is scary. I recently met with a group of international women who moved to Chicago. Not knowing about the U.S. healthcare system cost them money and untold grief. They paid high fees for going to the Emergency Room for a minor injury because they didn’t understand the system. If you are moving to the United States from abroad, I hope this primer on the U.S. healthcare system will help you during the time you need it most.
How the U.S. Healthcare System Works
The U.S. healthcare system is divided into generalists and specialists. Your first visit will be with a primary care doctor. He or she will refer you to a specialist when appropriate. For children, the primary care doctor is called a pediatrician. Adults go to an internal medicine or a family medicine doctor. If you are a female of childbearing age, you can visit an OB/GYN. (This is pronounced either by saying each letter “O-B-G-Y-N” or “O-B-gine” and the full name is obstetrics and gynecology). I recommend finding a primary care doctor soon after your move, because you don’t want to wait until there’s an emergency to do your research.
If You’re Sick, Only Go to the ER it it’s an Emergency
When sickness occurs, determine whether you or a loved one is suffering from a life-threatening emergency. If so, call an ambulance by dialing 9-1-1 on any phone. Your other option is to go to the Emergency Room (ER).
If you go to the Emergency Room for a minor injury, realize that it will be a more expensive and slower option. The ER doctors will attend to critical injuries first. Remember that your primary care doctor can help you with your questions or concerns, so call your doctor’s office for advice.
If you do not have a primary care doctor yet and you are suffering from a minor injury, you could visit an urgent care or an ambulatory care facility. These names can be confusing, because it sounds like the same thing as an emergency room. However, urgent care is typically faster and less expensive than the ER. Many hospitals have an urgent care center in a separate location than their main hospital. Do a google search of urgent care facilities to find the one closest to you. If you have a minor pain like an earache, you could visit a pharmacy. Pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens offer walk-in clinics and you pay out of pocket for these clinics.
How To Find a Doctor
The best way to find a doctor is to ask for a recommendation. The ideal situation is if you know someone in the medical profession in your area. Assuming you don’t know anyone in your new city, your realtor or relocation company would be a good first step. If you’ve become involved in an international group, ask around. If you don’t know anyone in your new city, call your insurance company to see which doctors are in your network. Many of the people I’ve interviewed feel most comfortable meeting with a doctor who speaks their native language. This may not always be possible, but you can call the medical group in your insurance network to see if anyone fits this specification.
Paying for Healthcare
One main difference between the U.S. healthcare system and medical care in other countries is payment. The government does not pay for everyone’s health care in the United States. Most Americans receive insurance through an employer. The government programs that provide medical care to the elderly and the poor are called Medicare and Medicaid, respectively. Healthcare in the U.S. can be expensive and complicated, so get familiar with your insurance plan to avoid unexpected costs. Visit this website for a definition of important terms like deductible and co-pay. If you do not have insurance, visit the USA.gov website for different options available to you.
Medical Training in the U.S.: How It Works
You will be putting your health in the hands of the U.S. healthcare system, so you might want to know how doctors are trained here. Physicians in the United States must complete lengthy training programs before they are able to practice medicine. This includes four years of college (i.e., university), four years of medical school, and a minimum of three years of apprenticeship (called “residency”). Specialist physicians must then train for additional years. A neurosurgeon, for example, may spend eight or more years in training after the completion of medical school. At many hospitals in the U.S., particularly at university hospitals, patients will see both physicians-in-training and attending physicians (those who have completed training).
You don’t need to know the ins and outs of the U.S. healthcare system to get good care. Nevertheless, it helps to know the basics so you don’t pay more than you need to pay. Things may be different than in your country, but please realize that the doctors and nurses and staff are doing their best to help you. Those in the medical profession make many sacrifices to provide the best care they can to their patients. If you find that there is a language or cultural barrier preventing you from getting the help you need, please don’t be afraid to ask for help.