Internationals can’t find a doctor
‘You have to play up your symptoms’
One night in October, Chris was lying awake in the narrow shipping container turned student room that he rents in The Village, when suddenly his phone lit up with a message from a student four rooms away.
‘Who’s coughing? They sound like they are about to die’, it read.
‘That’s me, sorry’, Chris replied, before turning over and trying to sleep again.
Chris Conway, who arrived in August to start a master’s degree in journalism at the UG, started feeling sick at the end of September, but he wasn’t too worried then. ‘I always get the freshers’ flu at the start of the year, it’s nothing new’, he recounts.
This time, though, the symptoms didn’t go away and they started to affect his life. After two weeks, he decided he needed to see a doctor. ‘It’s so hard to do university work when you are sick – you’re tired, run down, and your mind just isn’t working right’, he says. Getting around became a struggle too: breathing cold air made the coughing worse, which made the long bike trip out to Meerwold for early morning classes especially tough.
‘You don’t want to go to class sick and you also don’t want to make your classmates sick’, says Chris, who tested negative for Covid for the entirety of his illness.
Back home in Ireland, he’d simply have made an appointment with his GP (general practitioner) for the next day and got medication. In Groningen, things aren’t quite that straightforward, he found.
Chris started looking around online and asking other international students in his class for advice about where to make a doctor’s appointment in Groningen. They didn’t know either. ‘When you come to a new country, you don’t know how the system works’, Chris says.
Each time I was told that they had no upcoming appointments
Eventually, some students who had been in Groningen a few years provided Chris with the phone numbers of two different practices. However, getting an appointment was the next problem.
‘I called the StudentArts clinic three times’, Chris says. ‘Each time I was told that they had no upcoming appointments and that I would need to try to book on their website and wait to be notified when an appointment became available.’
He’s not the only international who struggled to find a new doctor. It’s one of those challenges that everyone faces when they move to the Netherlands – right alongside registering with the municipality and acclimatising to the chaos of Dutch cycling culture.
‘It took me two months to find a GP’, says Adrian Aaen, a Norwegian computer science student. After trying between five to ten GP offices, he finally got registered at the GP practice in the UMCG. ‘I was so relieved I wouldn’t have to deal with that anymore.’
Marketing analytics and data science student Katerina from Cyprus tried registering with a GP in March. ‘It was so complicated’, she says. ‘I called like ten of them. I was either rejected because they were full or because they thought I might have Covid.’
Influx of internationals
It’s not that GPs don’t want to take on new patients, says Anne Visser, practice manager of StudentArts. They just can’t manage any more. There’s a GP shortage in the entire country, but in Groningen, the growing number of international students makes things extra problematic.
StudentArts is the main GP practice for internationals who come into the city, treating around 4,000 new patients from abroad annually. In September, dealing with the influx of students is a challenge. ‘For a couple of months, we were fully booked’, says Visser.
It takes time to register new patients, too, he stresses. ‘When you have a foreign student, it takes about a half an hour to register them’, agrees Nicoline van den Broek, who has worked as a GP in Friesland and Groningen for twenty years.
Nobody foresaw the extra strain to the healthcare system
With the number of internationals in Groningen haven rising to 9,094 in 2021, that does explain things a little. ‘The Dutch government decided we should have more foreign students because we have a good education system and we want people to take advantage of that’, Van den Broek says, ‘but the extra strain they add to the healthcare system is a side effect that nobody foresaw.’
International students have been frequenting their doctors more often than expected, too. Not because they have become sicker, but because they are dealing with issues that turn out to be psychological – stemming from depression or loneliness, rather than medical problems, says Visser. For that reason, the clinic increased its psychological capacity for foreign students this year.
But then the long days and packed consultation hours are not just affecting StudentArts, but all GP clinics. ‘So, generally speaking, all the doctors are really tired,’ says Van den Broek.
Chris never got to see a doctor. After explaining his symptoms to the assistant on the phone, he was told to ‘take two Paracetamol four times a day and to rest’. Dutch GPs prescribing Paracetamol for ailments from the common cold to broken bones is something of a running joke among internationals – doctors here are less keen on handing out medication than in many other countries. But to Chris, it wasn’t very funny.
I felt like I was being fobbed off
His friends advised him to ‘keep saying it is urgent’ on the phone to try and get an appointment, he recalls. ‘But still there was no response. I felt like I was being fobbed off to an extent.’ He felt it strange to meet such a ‘lack of sympathy’ when calling a doctor’s office.
‘You definitely have to play up your symptoms’, says Spanish international relations student Alma Martorell. ‘They will not take you unless you give them enough reasons and they set the bar quite high.’ It was easier before Covid, she feels, but now the doctors seem less likely to give appointments.
Doctor back home
Katerina missed a deadline because she couldn’t get treatment, she says. ‘I ended up being stuck at home in bed for ten days, really sick with fever and high temperatures. I wanted medicine to recover and do university stuff, but I couldn’t get it.’
Eventually she resorted to just calling her doctor back home in Cyprus. ‘Express shipping and then you have your medicine and you’re all okay.’
When Chris finally did receive an email from StudentArts saying he had an appointment scheduled, that appointment was a full two weeks away. So he, too, decided to call his GP in Ireland. ‘After three weeks of being sick, I needed to get something, I needed to get better.’
He explained the situation and asked if a doctor could call him back – which they did that same afternoon. The doctor told him he had a viral chest infection which had spread to his throat and sinuses. They prescribed him some antibiotics that arrived in Groningen a week later.
By then, he had recovered on his own.