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Whether you’re soaking up the sun in the Algarve, immersing yourself in culture in Lisbon or relaxing on the island of Madeira, it’s important to know how to access medical care if you need it. No-one wants to consider the possibility of falling ill or being hurt while they’re away from home, but knowing how to get medical help if you need it is vitally important.
Healthcare during temporary stays in Portugal
Although Portugal does have a National Health Service, or Serviço Nacional de Saúde (SNS), access to free healthcare under this system is dependent on your residency status. As a tourist or temporary visitor to Portugal, you won’t qualify for free healthcare under Portugal’s NHS, so you should ensure you have made alternative arrangements before you leave the UK.
If you’re a UK citizen and you’re travelling to Portugal temporarily, you should be able to use a valid European Health Insurance Card to access medical care. Although an EHIC doesn’t guarantee you free medical treatment, it does enable to you to access reduced-cost medical care in many situations.
However, an EHIC is only applicable if you obtain state-run healthcare, so you won’t be able to claim anything back if you are treated at a private hospital or medical facility.
In addition to this, an EHIC doesn’t cover all types of treatment. Mountain rescues, treatment aboard a cruise, the cost of travel back to the UK and treatment you’ve travelled to Portugal for won’t be covered by your EHIC, and you won’t be able to claim any costs back.
As a result, UK citizens are always advised to purchase a travel insurance policy when they are going to Portugal, regardless of how short their stay is.
Although your EHIC should be applicable for as long as the UK remains in the EU, it is unclear what will happen post-Brexit. Unless alternative plans are announced, it is likely that UK citizens will be prevented from taking part in the EHIC scheme, which means you won’t be able to claim reduced-cost or free healthcare in Portugal once the UK has left the EU.
Using a Provisional Replacement Certificate in Portugal
If you have a valid EHIC, you should carry it with you at all times when you’re in Portugal. If you lose your card or forget to take it with you, however, you may be able to obtain a Provisional Replacement Certificate. A PRC can be sent from the UK Overseas Healthcare Services to the hospital or doctor treating you, and it will confirm that you’re eligible to receive medical treatment under the EHIC scheme.
To contact the UK Overseas Healthcare Services, you can telephone them Monday-Friday from 8am-6pm UK time on:
Calls from the UK: 0191 218 1999
Calls from outside the UK: (+44) 191 218 1999
Getting emergency medical help in Portugal
A serious illness or injury can be life-threatening, so it’s important to know how to contact the emergency services if you need them. In an emergency, you should call 112 from any phone and ask for an ambulance.
You can also go directly to a hospital if you need to obtain emergency medical care. However, private hospitals do not offer state-funded treatment and your EHIC won’t enable you to access subsidised treatment from private facilities.
In addition to hospitals, Portugal has a number of public health centres and 24 hour services. Known as Centros de Saúde and Serviços de Atendimento Permanente, you can do directly to these facilities for medical help.
There is also a hotline which will enable you to access medical advice and information. Run by Portugal’s NHS, you can obtain information regarding local medical services and clinical information from doctors and nurses. The Linha Saúde 24 can be contacted at any time on 808 24 24 24. Once connected, press 9 or follow the automated instructions in order to access the services in English.
Medical treatment for pre-existing conditions in Portugal
If you have an existing medical treatment, you should seek medical advice before you travel. If your GP or Consultant confirms that it’s safe for you to travel, you should be able to obtain medical treatment for a pre-existing treatment at a reduced cost using a valid EHIC. However, an EHIC is only applicable if your treatment can’t wait until you return home.
When you buy travel insurance, however, you’ll need to ensure your policy will cover the cost of treatment for any pre-existing conditions. Insurers often exclude treatment for existing medical conditions, so it’s important to check exactly what you’ll be covered for before you select a policy.
If you’re currently taking prescribed medication for a pre-existing condition, you’ll need to be mindful of the rules regarding bringing medication into the country.
Bringing medication to Portugal
If you’ve been prescribed medication by a doctor in the UK and you’ll be bringing it with you to Portugal, you should also bring a copy of your prescription and/or a letter for a medical professional.
For some medications, however, additional documentation is required. Controlled drugs, such as codeine, may require a personal licence so you’ll need to check whether they are any restrictions applicable to your prescription medications before you travel.
Visiting a hospital in Portugal
In a non-urgent situation, you will only be treated in hospital if you’re referred there by a doctor. If you require hospital treatment and you have a valid EHIC, your treatment should be free or reduced, in accordance with the EHIC scheme. However, there are state-run facilities and privately-run facilities in Portugal, just like in the UK. Your EHIC card will only be applicable in state-run hospitals, so double-check what type of facility you’re in before you agree to treatment.
Furthermore, some state-run hospitals also treat private patients. Make sure your medical team know that you want to be treated as a non-private patient and that you have a valid EHIC card before treatment is commenced.
Getting a prescription in Portugal
If you’re prescribed medication whilst you’re visiting Portugal, you can take it a pharmacy or chemist. In Portugal, different types of medications are subject to a fee reduction. Generally, medications are placed in different grades and their cost is subsidised according to which grade they are. Medications are subsidised by the following amounts:
Grade A – 90%
Grade B – 69%
Grade C – 37%
Grade D – 15%
When you present a valid EHIC, however, the cost of your prescription will be reduced. If you are of working age and have a valid EHIC, you’ll be charged 50%. Alternatively, if you are a pensioner and receive a UK State Pension, you will only be charged around 10% of the cost.
Seeing a dentist in Portugal
Generally, dentistry in Portugal isn’t state-funded, although there may be some treatments which are available in state-run hospitals in emergency situations. If you see a private dentist while you’re in Portugal, your treatment will not be free, nor will it be covered by your EHIC. In some cases, your travel insurance policy may cover the cost of dental treatment you receive whilst in Portugal.
Accessing health services if you live or work in Portugal
Under the current rules, UK citizens who plan to stay in Portugal for longer than three months must apply for a Registration Certificate for their local council hall. A Registration Certificate can last for 5 years, after which the citizen can apply for residency in Portugal.
If you are a resident of Portugal and you work, and contribute to the Social Security system, you are entitled to state-funded healthcare services. In general, SNS healthcare services are heavily subsidised but there are relatively small charges for treatment. For certain groups of patients, such as people under the age of 18 or the elderly, state-funded treatment may be completely free.
In order to access SNS healthcare services, you must register with a local health centre. You will be assigned a doctor or can choose which doctor to register with. Once registered, you will have a card confirming your healthcare number, which you can use to obtain state-funded medical treatment.
In addition to using the Portuguese NHS, residents can also access special social health insurance schemes, although these are only available to employees of specific professions. Furthermore, residents can take out private insurance policies if they choose to.
If you are working in Portugal but are employed by a UK-based company, you may be entitled to UK-funded healthcare. This is dependent on your prior contributions to the UK tax and national insurance system so it’s important to check your eligibility with the HMRC before you leave the UK.
However, workers who are posted to Portugal but are employed by UK-based companies may not be able to access UK-funded healthcare once the UK leaves the EU. When this happens, non-residents who are working in Portugal will need to have appropriate health insurance in place or will need to pay for the care they receive.
Getting healthcare as a pensioner in Portugal
Portugal is a popular place to retire to and there are plenty of UK expats of pensionable age living in the country. When it comes to healthcare services, pensioners can access Portugal’s NHS services if they are a resident of the country. In some cases, a small fee may be payable when accessing state-run medical care but elderly patients may not be required to pay anything.
However, pensioners may be entitled to UK-funded medical treatment if they have a valid S1 Certificate of Entitlement. If you have worked and paid contributions in the UK or if you are in receipt of certain benefits, such as an exportable pension, you should be able to obtain an S1 certificate from the UK’s Business Services Authority.
Once the UK leaves the EU, however, the rules regarding S1 certificates may change and pensioners may not be able to access UK-funded healthcare services. Due to this, additional travel insurance may be required, particularly if you are not a resident of Portugal and are ineligible to access state-funded healthcare services.
Accessing student healthcare services in Portugal
If you’re studying in Portugal, you may be able to use a valid EHIC to obtain healthcare services whilst the UK remains in the EU. However, if you are studying in Portugal for more than three months, you will be considered a long-stay visitor. As the EHIC scheme is only intended to cover temporary visits to other EU countries, long-term students cannot usually obtain subsidised medical care with their EHIC.
Similarly, students who are not working are not paying into the country’s tax system and may not, therefore, qualify for residency. As a result, they will not be able to obtain state-funded healthcare services either. Although there are visas aimed at long-stay students, which would then enable the individual to apply for residency, the individual would need to successfully apply for residency before they are entitled to access state-funded, SNS healthcare services.
Due to this, students who are travelling to Portugal are usually advised to obtain a comprehensive travel insurance policy before they leave. With the UK set to leave the EU and the uncertainty surrounding the effect this will have on healthcare provisions, even short-stay students who will be in the country for less than three months should consider taking out additional health insurance before they leave.
Getting medical help in Portugal
There are a considerable number of English-speaking people in Portugal and it’s often possible to consult with an English-speaking doctor or nurse, when you need to. However, it is helpful to have a basic knowledge of relevant Portuguese terms so that you’re able to access medical help when you need it. The following words or phrases may be helpful:
Call an ambulance – Chame uma ambulancia
I feel ill – Estou doente
I would like to see a doctor – Gostaria de ver um medico
In an emergency situation, it’s easy to forget phone numbers and phrases. Write down relevant contact numbers and useful Portuguese phrases so that you can use them if a medical emergency arises. Similarly, keep a note of your location or where you’re staying so that you can provide these details if an ambulance is sent to assist you.