The different types of doctors in Germany
Published on January 2, 2021 / Updated on November 7, 2022
Where do you go if you’re sick in Germany? The doctor, is the obvious answer. But which doctor? There are several types of doctor, and it’s good to have an idea of what to look for when you choose a specialist.
When you first arrive in Germany, it’s a good idea to look for your main doctor that you would call if you had a cold that wouldn’t go away or a sore spot that doesn’t seem to be improving. In Canada or the US, you’d probably call this person your family doctor, even if you don’t have a family. In the UK, we’d say GP, short for ‘general practitioner’. In Germany, this person is a Hausarzt (literally ‘house doctor’) or Allgemeinarzt (this one is a pretty straight translation from general pracititioner). Compared to GPs or family doctors in Canada and the UK, I’ve found Hausärtze much quicker to refer me to a specialist whenever any issue moved beyond basics. However, unlike in those other countries, you are written a referral and then expected to find your own specialist.
It’s important to note that four days into a bad sinus infection is not the time to look into finding a Hausarzt that speaks English in your area. As soon as you’re settled into your flat, take the time to look up English-speaking doctors on a website like Weisse Liste, which allows you to filter by which insurance the practice accepts and what languages the doctor speaks. It’s unlikely that the receptionist at any given doctor’s office will speak English, so look up what you need to say first.
Unlike the UK and Canada, you don’t need to register at a specific doctor’s practice and stick with it, you can go to several – but obviously to ensure your doctor knows a bit about you (and that you don’t have to explain your entire medical history every time), it’s worth finding one you like and staying there. If the idea of phoning the office terrifies you, many doctor’s offices have a general email address you can use for basic appointment questions.
If you are referred to a specialist by your Hausarzt, ask them to write down the type of doctor you need to find. This information is also on your referral, called a Überweisung, but they take some practise to learn how to decipher. You can also ask your Hausarzt if they have any recommendations, but this has never actually helped me find someone unfortunately. If the dizzying array of specialists available on Weisse Liste overwhelms you, start with your local university hospital, Üniversitätsklinikum. I have yet to encounter a specialist that does not speak very good English, but if you’re concerned, you can email the receptionist (translate your email into German if you want a response!) and ask when you’re requesting an appointment. Include a photograph or scan of your Überweisung. It’s important to remember your Überweisung is only good for two weeks! You must have your appointment within that time. That’s not always going to work, so if you need to, ask your referring doctor’s office for a new Überweisung close to your specialist appointment. You don’t need an appointment at your referring doctor for this, you can just call ahead or email to have them prepare one you can pick up.
In Canada and the UK, there is no way you’re getting in the door with a specialist without a referral, and usually that process takes place without any input from you. However, several types of doctor and medical specialists don’t require an Überweisung. Neurologists (Neurologen), psychotherapists (Psychotherapeuten), and physiotherapists (Physiotherapeuten), for instance, don’t need a referral from your Hausarzt in all cases. Often that first appointment is an assessment and then they determine from there whether you need further sessions. It’s worth checking on the practice website whether this is indeed the case, they often detail how they organise their billing.
If you’re moving to Germany, check out Lingoda’s German language lessons. It’s certainly less panic-inducing at the receptionist desk if you can understand what’s going on!