Dutch doctors

The European Mama: How to talk to Dutch doctors so they listen

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Olga Mecking accepts the 'natural' Dutch health approach, but sometimes an expat just wants some real medicine besides 'bitterballen' and paracetamol.

For those of you not yet in the know about the Dutch healthcare system, doctors in the Netherlands believe that everything can be cured by paracetamol and bread. I still remember the shock when I asked for the chicken pox vaccine for my kids and was told that such a vaccine does not exist. I know for a fact that it does exist, it’s just not done in the Netherlands because going through the chicken pox is 'natural'.

Dutch doctors and the Dutch in general are obsessed with all things 'natural' or 'normal'. 'So it should come as no surprise that this preoccupation with 'keeping it real' extends to all acts – birth being no exception', writes Colleen over at Stuff Dutch People Like. And it does extend to the rest of the healthcare system as well. I don’t know how many times I went to the doctor with a sick child only to be told to go back home and give them paracetamol.

My husband, however, always gets medicine when he needs it. Many times I've sent him to the doctor’s office with whichever child is sick at the time, and he comes back home waving the prescription for antibiotics at me. I wondered for a long, how does he do it? What am I doing wrong? So I asked him. The insights he gave me are just too precious to keep secret. Apparently, Dutch doctors require a special mode of communication.

1) Tell, don’t ask

When calling to make an appointment, I used to ask if it was possible to see the doctor, pretty please. That was a big mistake. It often resulted in the secretary telling me they were full and if I was lucky, I may able to get a slot next week. My husband goes in and says, “I want an appointment asap.” And gets it.

Dutch doctors, like all Dutch people, expect directness and will be confused by your attempts at being polite. To be successful in seeing your doctor, you need to put your politeness aside and state your wishes loud and clear. Yes, you need an appointment right now. Yes, in 5 minutes is good. Once you’re in, tell your doctor what medications you want. You might still not get them but at least they understood your wishes.

2) Never lose your cool

A friend of mine half-jokingly told me how you can get the otherwise calm Dutch people to take action and maybe even panic a little – by not panicking. When you call your doctor, say, in your calmest Zen voice, ”Hello, is this Dr Soandso? I’m not sure but, you know, my child just drank a whole bottle of laundry detergent and looks a little bit blue. He’s not breathing either. So should I come and see you or is it not necessary?” If you lose your cool, they might think you’re a crazy expat who's freaking out for no reason. Speaking out is expected, but losing your temper is niet normaal.

3) Appeal to their expertise

The above example showed another point to consider to be successful in persuading your doctor to give you medicine. Even though Dutch doctors would never boast about their achievements, they still want to know they’re doing a great job at keeping people safe from all these bad medications. You can always ask your doctor questions like, “So, I see I don’t need antibiotics. But maybe you can tell me why?” and listen intently to their answer. Next time, the doctor may be more willing to give you real medicine at your appointment. Of course, laughing when they prescribe bitterballen and paracetamol won't help.

4) Choose your language and choose it well

My husband and I have a difference of opinion in this matter. I usually speak Dutch to show that I’m willing to adjust and expect the other side to do the same. My German husband speaks English because he understands it and it puts him in a position of power. We all have our reasons for our choice of language but think hard about the consequences of each choice before you open your mouth.

5) Use every trick up your sleeve

Take this simple advice from our book Dutched Up!: 'When explaining your illness, double the amount of time you’ve been sick, triple your symptoms and that equals help'. I don’t care if you have to lie, bribe, or threaten to get your meds. In tough times an expat must do what she has to do in order to survive. Use your very cute child to get the flu shot right away instead of having to wait for weeks, for example. You may lose your scruples when you walk into that practice but you might get meds and that is all that matters. Don’t worry; your conscience will heal together with your body.

6) Never refuse medication, never

If all your hard work pays off, you will get your holy grail: medication or an appointment with a specialist. And it doesn't matter if you went to see your GP for a digestive problem but were sent to a cardiologist, or whether you got the right meds or not, just take them before your doctor changes their mind. If you refuse, you may never get antibiotics again. If you feel that you were given the wrong medications, hang them on your wall like a picture. Just don’t say 'no'.

Conceding a point

You did all of the things I mentioned and it didn’t work? Well, you can’t always have what you want. And believe it or not, sometimes these Dutch doctors are right and you actually don’t need antibiotics and the paracetamol will do the trick. You can at least console yourself that it's actually a good thing and at least they won’t over-medicate you here. Then quietly call your doctor back home or ask someone to stock up your medicine cabinet the next time they come to visit.

This post is obviously tongue-in-cheek and to be taken with a grain of salt or two, but even if these tips are not necessary for you and your doctor is awesome, maybe at least you’ll have a good laugh.


Reprinted with permission from The European Mama.

Olga Mecking - The European Mama

Olga moved to the Netherlands in 2009 with a 6-week-old baby to be with her German husband. She is now mum to two trilingual daughters and expecting her third child very soon. She is a translator, and trainer in intercultural communication. She blogs about her experiences on The European Mama, which focuses on expat life and raising trilingual children. It won the Expat Blog Award in 2012 and continues to gain readership from all over the world. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thumbnail credit: Gabi Butcher (DiaPositivo Fotografia).



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7 Comments To This Article

  • Misja posted:

    on 23rd September 2016, 12:26:23 - Reply

    I work as a nurse at at GP`s office in The Hague. Many expats. And NO we dont treat expats as second class citizens. And they dont need to speak dutch! If you speak a language we dont master we call a service who helps out so that we can be sure we understand the patients problem, as this is essential for treatment. We take each and every patient serious, as should be the case. I dont understant why such a negative, and factually wrong article is posted here. At least some others here have common sense in there comments. And yes, The Netherlands is in the top of Healthcare in the EU. Once you know the system it works just fine. And if you dont like your GP I would reccomend to switch to a different one, that is your right as a patient here.
  • enniamerrican posted:

    on 5th August 2015, 15:43:23 - Reply

    These are all good advice but I've been there and done that. It didn't work and I was sick for 2 years before a trainee doctor finally noticed my swollen glands and told me I needed to get my tonsils out. A quick search online confirmed everything I had had for the previous 2 years. I missed a big part of my daughter's life then as it took me a while to get better too. I also have epilepsy and they're worthless with that too. I just take my medicine and pray I never get a seizure that will land me in hospital again because if I do, may god have mercy on me especially with the kind of doctors they have here.
  • mokumhammer posted:

    on 5th August 2015, 16:51:13 - Reply

    Unless you speak in dutch, you will ALWAYS be treated as a 2nd class citizen, & receive 2nd class medical assistance. Even speaking English STILL makes you a foreigner
  • Nina posted:

    on 5th August 2015, 23:40:08 - Reply

    Um, what happens if you don't really need medication? Isn't it the doctor's decision? I'm from the UK and have lived here 15 years, and have given birth to two children in that time. I've had a LOT to do with the medical system here, for myself and my children, besides childbirth. I have to say that the care I have received here is FAR superior than in England. I also lived in Switzerland for a few years and the healthcare system is on a par with their very high standards.

    I'll never forget one of my earlier experiences with doctors in the UK. I faked being ill so that I didn't have to go to school. The doctor prescribed a course of antibiotics. Ooh great, nothing wrong with me but he wanted to keep me happy so got rid of me with medication. I think we should credit doctors with a better medical education than ourselves. If we do not need antibiotics or medication, then I totally value their decision not to put my body through having to take it.

    It sounds like you might have a bad doctor if you go away feeling like they didn't help you? Change to a good one who listens! :)
  • Victor posted:

    on 6th August 2015, 10:31:26 - Reply

    I dislocated my shoulder falling from those ridiculous small step of the dutch stairs...
    doctors says, you'll be fine, just go ahead !
    I had to ask him for painkiller because to his opinion it was not a serious matter, and I should just give it some time.
    he gave me paracetamol... I hate dutch doctors !
  • Bert posted:

    on 6th August 2015, 10:35:16 - Reply

    Misuse of antibiotics is causing resistance in people to these medicins. It is one of the main risks to global health already resulting in the death of 10s of thousands worldwide per year, It is a growing problem which can only be stopped by educating people concerning the risks, Below a quote form English NHS site (so not only Dutch doctor try to behave responsibly):
    "A new Antibiotic Awareness leaflet [external link] has been produced to encourage patients visiting their doctor with cold and flu symptoms not to ask for antibiotics for their treatment.

    This is being launched on November 18 which marks European Antibiotics Awareness Day (EAAD). This Day aims to raise awareness of the risks associated with the inappropriate use of antibiotics and how to use them responsibly.

    The leaflet is designed to encourage a dialogue between the doctor and patient about why they were not prescribed antibiotics today and reminds patients that colds and most coughs, sinusitis, earache and sort throats often get better without antibiotics.

    To reassure patients it gives details about how long these infections typically last, what they can do to ease their symptoms and when you, or your child, should go back to your GP practice or contact NHS Direct".
  • Fem posted:

    on 7th August 2015, 10:25:24 - Reply

    If it's antibiotics you want, move to Germany... here people demand (yes, demand) antibiotics from their doctors for everything, and many doctors prescribe them easily. Also, you generally see a specialist immediately, for every single tiny problem that a GP should be able to solve.
    Got a cold? Here, take some antibiotics. Never mind that a cold is a virus and that antibiotics deal with bacteria! Antibiotics can be a powerful medicine, but if prescribed at random, very dangerous. Bacteria become resistant because people in Africa can't afford the entire treatment? Possibly, yes, but we might want to look a bit closer at all the western European doctors that prescribe antibiotics for no reason at all (other than the patient demanding them).