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Although the cost of living in Iceland is considered high, their healthcare is considered some of the best in the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently stated that Iceland’s universal healthcare ranked 15th in the world. Iceland spends 8.9% of its GDP on healthcare, which is close to the UK’s spending of 9.1%. Life expectancy is also a little higher in Iceland, and in fact is the highest anywhere in Europe, with both men and women living on average a year longer than they do in the UK. 85% of Iceland’s healthcare system is paid for by taxes, so very little needs to come from service fees like chargeable prescriptions.
Living in Iceland
People move to Iceland for various reasons, the healthcare system often being one of those reasons. With an extremely low infant mortality rate, it’s a good choice for a country to start a family in. There’s a very high ratio of doctors to patients. As of 2015, there were three to four doctors per 1000 patients. This is considered the highest in the world.
People moving to Iceland need to ensure they have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). This will entitle the bearer to six months of medical coverage. It’s also important to register with the National Insurance Office. This ensures that once the EHIC runs out, the person moving to Iceland will be covered by Iceland’s National Healthcare system.
Anyone who has been living in Iceland for over six months is entitled to health care. This includes treatment for mental health problems, maternity care, long-term care and most other medical needs. When registering for healthcare in Iceland, applicants may need to provide copies of their passport, their work/stay permits and proof of residence. This is to show that they have lived in Iceland for at least six months.
Accessing healthcare in Iceland starts by registering with a GP. Most large towns and cities have plenty of good doctors available. For those moving to more rural areas of Iceland, it can be more difficult to find a physician and travel times may be longer. However, there is an advantage in that patients do not need a referral from a GP to visit a specialist. For instance, if a patient was suffering from repeated throat and ear infections, they could visit Iceland’s equivalent of an ENT specialist without having to see a GP first. There may be some token fees to see either a GP or specialist, but the vast majority of all costs are covered by the universal healthcare system.
The healthcare system in Iceland consists of seven districts, each with different health centres, called heilsugaeslustod. Some of these clinics will have lots of medical professionals, while some may only have a nurse, a midwife and a visiting doctor. However, all heilsugaeslustod are also visited by various specialists, including paediatricians and optometrists. There is also usually a doctor on call 24 hours a day. The healthcare system is centrally funded, rather than by locality, so each district should, in theory, offer exactly the same services. This means that apart from the distance or difficulty to get to facilities, everyone has access to the same level of healthcare.
Most of the healthcare districts also have a hospital. All of Iceland’s hospitals are government funded. Although there are various private clinics and other medical facilities, there are no private hospitals in Iceland. Admission to hospital is usually down via a GP referral, but hospitals also accept emergency patients. The main hospital in Iceland is in Reykjavik.
Chemists or pharmacies are known as Apoteks. There is normally at least one Apotek in every town. Be aware that most medicines are very expensive in Iceland. Most Apoteks are open from 9 am to 6.30 pm through the week and may have shorter opening times at the weekend, so it’s worth bearing this in mind when planning when to purchase medicines or first aid supplies.
Apotek staff are often happy to advise about minor ailments, and can also point patents in the direction of the appropriate healthcare facilities. Most healthcare districts have clinics which set a few appointment slots aside each day to deal with emergencies, so there is often the option to walk in and see someone for urgent medical attention.
Working in Iceland
Anyone who has been in Iceland for more than six months is entitled to state-funded healthcare. So, if a worker is posted long term, they will be covered for the same medical treatments as someone who is living there permanently. In certain instances, workers may need to apply for a residency permit. There is also sometimes the option to buy into the healthcare system.
Some workers may be able to get healthcare funded by their country of residence. For example, workers posted by UK companies can contact the HMRC for details on how to claim free healthcare.
Nordic citizens (citizens of Scandinavia) just need their passports to prove they are entitled to state healthcare. This applies whether they are travelling, working, or living in Iceland.
If there is no entitlement to healthcare, and no insurance in place, all healthcare costs must be paid in full. It’s worth noting that even when using travel insurance to cover the costs of healthcare, medical costs need to be paid up front and then claimed back later. A single consultation can cost 10,000kr, so this can be a costly option.
Travelling to Iceland
For those just visiting Iceland, it’s vital to check that their health insurance covers any medical issues whilst in Iceland. The EHIC is completely sufficient and easy enough to apply for. Some travel insurance policies may already cover the cost of medical intervention while in Iceland. Those that are unsure should check with their providers.
The EHIC covers the cost of any necessary medical treatment by confirming that the traveller is also in the European Economic Area (EEA) and therefore eligible for state-funded assistance, although a fixed charge may apply if an ambulance is used.
Whilst this may change in the future, at the moment the EHIC is the best way to get medical treatment while travelling in Iceland. If membership of the EEA changes, it may become necessary to ensure travel insurance covers the cost of medical treatment whilst in Iceland. Without an EHIC or relevant insurance policy, the patient would become liable for the full cost of medical treatment. Remember to keep all receipts and copies of any relevant paperwork. The travel insurance company may need to see these to process a claim.
Be aware that the EHIC does not cover medical incidents onboard cruise ships. It also doesn’t cover aid provided by mountain rescue teams. Most health risks to travellers in Iceland are from the elements. Iceland is a country of extremes, including severe cold which can lead to hypothermia. This may be acute, as in a sudden drop of temperature, or chronic, where the temperature has been gradually dropping over time. Either way, there is a definite risk to life if not dealt with appropriately. Travellers should make sure they have adequate warm clothing, food, drink, and are fully aware of their route and surroundings. They should also make a note of emergency numbers- see below.
There are no health concerns with drinking the tap water in Iceland. Buying bottled water in Iceland is considered a waste of money, and in a country with extremely high living costs, this is inadvisable. Hot water may smell of sulphur thanks to the geothermal activity. Only drink the cold water.
If someone has forgotten their EHIC, or lost it, there is a number to dial to obtain a provisional replacement certificate (PRC). This is the Overseas Healthcare Team, and they are available on +44 191 218 1999.
If using private travel insurance, always check what the policy covers. Iceland is famous for many exciting outdoor activities, including climbing and hiking, dog sledging, spelunking and horse riding. Many insurance policies will not cover travellers for injuries sustained whilst performing ‘dangerous’ activities. If there is an itinerary for the trip, call the insurance provider and go through what they will cover and what they won’t. There may be an alternative insurance product that’s more suited to the needs of the traveller.
It’s also worth checking if the insurance company covers pre-existing health conditions. If a traveller becomes ill due to existing diabetes or asthma, it can be costly if insurance doesn’t cover this. An EHIC will currently cover emergency medical treatment, so applying for this document is the surest way to be covered against illness and injury whilst travelling in Iceland
Taking Existing Medication to Iceland
Long term medications are necessary but can cause issues when travelling to Iceland. Certain medications contain what are known as ‘controlled drugs’. This means that travellers may need to prove that this medication was prescribed to them, as well as showing a license for travelling with this kind of drug.
Before travelling, it’s worth asking a doctor or pharmacist if they know if any of the medications taken contain a controlled drug. If they are unsure, this list may be able to help. A letter from the prescribing doctor with the traveller’s name, the destination, a list of the medications and a signature from the doctor is usually enough proof. A license is required when a traveller will have the mediation with them, overseas, for three months or more.
Alternatively, if the traveller has more than a three-month supply of the drugs, they also need to get a license. This can be done through the government website and should be completed at least ten days prior to travel.
English is widely spoken in Iceland, so travellers shouldn’t struggle too much with communication. For those enrolled in the state healthcare system, interpreters are available upon request.
Even if patients get their prescriptions for free currently, be aware that Iceland does not normally provide this service. All prescriptions must be paid for in Iceland. However, as a member of the state healthcare plan, some patients may be entitled to a reimbursement of up to 75% for the cost of prescriptions. This does not normally include any painkillers or antibiotics.
Prescriptions charges vary depending on how often patients require the medication. Someone who needs a medicine long-term would usually have to pay less than someone who needs something as a one-off. Children and the elderly normally get most of the cost of their prescriptions paid, as do some disabled individuals.
State dental care is normally free for under 18s and partially reimbursable for under 21s and the elderly or infirm. Iceland wants to encourage all children to have the best care for their teeth, regardless of their parents’ income.
Patients must register with a state dentist in order to benefit from the free or partially funded treatment. There are also plenty of private dentists who charge their own rates.
Studying in Iceland
Students from the UK who decide to study in Iceland are covered for free healthcare, just the same as any other traveller. All that’s required is the standard EHIC. There is a disclaimer that the course being studied must be recognised by the UK, however that covers an extremely wide and varied diversity of courses so it’s unlikely the course wouldn’t be covered.
Whether living, working, or just travelling in Iceland, there are unfortunately times when accidents or medical emergencies occur. Iceland has an emergency number which is 112. This number can be dialled free of charge from any phone, including all mobiles. There is also an app which has additional safety advice, particularly for those wanting to enjoy plenty of outdoor activities. Search for 112 Iceland on the relevant app store.
- 1170 is a general medical assistance line.
- 444 1000 is the number to dial for police assistance.
- 575 0505 is the number to dial for dental emergencies.