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HEALTH

EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor’s appointment in Italy

Sooner or later, every foreign national living in Italy will need to see a doctor. Here's a guide to making your first appointment.

GP speaking with patient
Making an appointment with an Italian GP can be quite tricky, especially if you’re not acquainted with how the Italian public healthcare system works. Photo by Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

Making a doctor’s appointment is usually thought of as a fairly uncomplicated task but everything gets a little harder when you’re in a foreign country.

And in Italy, the process can turn out to be surprisngly tricky, especially if you’ve just relocated to the country and are not yet familiar with how the Italian healthcare system (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, or SSN) works.

READ ALSO: Who can register for national healthcare in Italy? 

On top of that, Italian doctors and other healthcare staff are rarely fluent in English and only very few sections of the SSN’s website provide information in languages other than Italian. 

So to make things a little easier, here’s what you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Italy.  

Who can make an appointment to see the doctor?

Only people who hold a valid Italian health card (tessera sanitaria) or an equivalent, i.e. a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or a UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), can access public health services, including visits to a general practitioner or family doctor (medico di base).

For emergency treatment, the Italian health service provides care to anyone in need regardless of their nationality or immigration status and without asking for upfront payment.

In a medical emergency, call 118 for an ambulance or head to the emergency ward (pronto soccorso) of the nearest hospital.

READ ALSO: Who to call and what to say in an emergency in Italy

A GP making a prescription

Only people that hold a valid Italian health card or a EU equivalent can access public GP’s services. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

How to register with a doctor

In order to make an appointment (visita) with a general practitioner (medico di base) within the SSN, you must first be registered with that particular doctor.

While in some countries you may call the local doctor’s office and book an appointment with any doctor on duty, that is not how things usually work in Italy and you’ll be under the care of one particular professional.

However, registering with an Italian doctor isn’t nearly as straightforward as it should be. 

Firstly, patients are expected to view the list of doctors operating within the area covered by their local health authority (Azienda Sanitaria Locale, ASL). 

Though in some cases these lists can be found online, in others residents will have to directly ask their ASL to be sent a copy, or visit the ASL office in person to see it.

Then, taking the location and office hours of the listed professionals into account, patients are asked to pick the doctor that’s best suited to their needs and communicate their choice to the ASL.

READ ALSO: Tessera sanitaria: How do you apply for or renew your Italian health card?

While in some areas this can be done online, most ASLs ask that patients turn up in person at their Scelta e Revoca (Choosing and Cancelling) offices and show an ID card, a valid Italian health card or equivalent (EHIC or GHIC) and a certificate of residence

Registrations are generally processed immediately and the doctor’s contact info and booking details are emailed to the patient right after.

How to book an appointment

Once you’re registered with a family doctor or GP, you can go ahead and book your first appointment. 

A booking can generally be made via phone, email or, in some cases, online.

However, as previously mentioned, healthcare staff, including receptionists, are rarely fluent in English, so email or online bookings might be the better options if you’re not really proficient in Italian – if this option is available.

Doctor speaking on the phone

Patients can book an appointment with their GP via phone, email or, in some cases, a designated online booking platform. Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP

During the first appointment, patients are usually handed a form to fill out with general information about themselves and their overall health. 

Due to these formalities, the first appointment might last a little bit more than normal appointments, which are usually around 15 to 20 minutes.

READ ALSO: Five essential facts about Italy’s public healthcare system  

It’s also worth noting that, though they provide patients with a set appointment time, Italian doctors’ clinics tend to run a little late, so be prepared for a wait once you arrive.

All consultations with an Italian GP, including the first appointment, are free of charge.

Referral to specialists

GPs can refer patients to a specialist for further diagnostic exams or medical procedures.

However, unlike in other European countries, people choosing to see a specialist through the SSN cannot select the doctor they will be referred to as they will be given the earliest available appointment.

The referral comes in the form of a red prescription (ricetta rossa) with letters P, D, B and U indicating the different levels of urgency associated with the consultation – P marks the lowest priority level, whereas D is for consultations that must take place within 72 hours from the time of prescription.

The ricetta rossa allows patients to book their appointments online, in person or over the phone by calling the relevant Regional Central Booking Office (Centro Unico di Prenotazione Regionale, CUP).

Nurse looking at X rays

Patients choosing to see a specialist through the public healthcare system cannot select the doctor they will be referred to. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Again, foreign nationals with a poor command of Italian may find that online bookings are the best available option given that most operators are not fluent in English.

Private doctors 

As in other European countries, Italian residents can choose to see private GPs or specialists.

Private healthcare is of course provided at a fee – typically anything from €40 to €160, depending on the type of service required – and, in most cases, fees must be paid upfront. 

Unlike public health authorities, private providers do not require patients to have a tessera sanitaria or a valid equivalent.  

Aside from the above distinctions however, booking an appointment in the private sector is no different than booking one within the SSN, with patients being allowed to book via phone, email or a designated online platform. 

If you’re looking for an English-speaking doctor, the US Embassy in Rome and the Consulates General in Milan, Florence and Naples provide lists of English-speaking professionals available for private consultation. These can be downloaded here.

The UK government provides a similar list

Essential vocabulary and useful sentences

  • SSN (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) – National health system
  • ASL (Azienda Sanitaria Locale) – Regional health unit
  • Medico di base – General practitioner 
  • Ricetta – Prescription
  • Visita – Appointment 
  • Specialista – Specialist doctor
  • Farmaco – Medicine
  • When booking by email or phone, a useful phrase is: Vorrei fissare una visita alle ore X di X (I would like to schedule an appointment for [day] at [time]).
  • Should you need to cancel the appointment, you could say: Purtroppo, devo cancellare la visita.
  • To ask to reschedule it, you could say: Sarebbe possibile spostare la visita?

To describe your illness, you can check out our terminology guide for the most common ailments.

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For members

LIVING IN ITALY

The Italian holiday calendar for 2023

Italy gets a good number of public holidays, but they sometimes fall on a weekend. Here are the dates to plan for next year.

The Italian holiday calendar for 2023

Italy has long been known for being fairly generous with its public holidays, with Austria being the only EU country with more holidays (13). 

In total, Italian residents enjoy 11 national public holidays plus a local holiday for the patron saint of their cities (for instance St Ambrose in Milan, St Mark in Venice, St John in Florence, etc.).

READ ALSO: Why do Milan residents get a day off on December 7th?

But, as some Italian speakers might say, ‘non è tutto oro quel che luccica’ (all that glitters is not gold). In fact, all national holidays in Italy are taken on the day they fall on that year rather than being moved to the nearest Monday as is the case in other countries, including the UK.

This means that if a certain holiday is on a Saturday or a Sunday, there is no extra day off for residents.

It also means that there are ‘good’ holiday years and ‘bad’ ones, and, while 2022 wasn’t a particularly good one – as many as four public holidays fell on a weekend day – 2023 only has one such holiday: New Year’s Day, which will fall on Sunday, January 1st.

Deck chair on Italian seaside

Italian residents will get five three-day weekends in 2023 thanks to public national holidays. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

2023 holiday calendar

  • January 1, 2023 (New Year’s Day): Sunday
  • January 6, 2023 (Epiphany): Friday
  • April 10, 2023 (Easter Monday): Monday
  • April 25, 2023 (Liberation Day): Tuesday
  • May 1, 2023 (Labour Day): Monday
  • June 2, 2023 (Italian Republic Day): Friday
  • August 15, 2023 (Ferragosto): Tuesday
  • November 1, 2023 (All Saints’ Day): Wednesday
  • December 8, 2023 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception): Friday
  • December 25, 2023 (Christmas Day): Monday
  • December 26, 2023 (St Stephen’s Day): Tuesday

As shown by the above list, Christmas Eve (December 24th) and New Year’s Eve (December 31st) are not official public holidays in Italy, but many local companies do give their staff both days off as a gesture of goodwill. 

That said, in 2023 Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve will both fall on a Sunday, so residents will already be home from work. 

Like both ‘Eves’, Easter Sunday is also not considered a public holiday, but, once again, residents are already home from work on the day given that it falls on a Sunday every year.  

2023 ‘bridges’ and long weekends

Whether or not a certain year is a good one for holidays also depends on the number of ‘bridges’ available.

For the uninitiated, ‘fare il ponte (‘to do the bridge’) is the noble art of taking an extra day off when a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday – the most audacious might do this with a Wednesday holiday too.

Sadly, 2023 doesn’t provide a lot of opportunities to do this. There are only two possible bridges: one for Liberation Day, falling on Tuesday, April 25th and one for Ferragosto, on Tuesday, August 15th.

But, on a more positive note, six of next year’s public holidays will fall either on a Monday or a Friday, giving residents five three-day weekends and a four-day one – Christmas Day (falling on Monday) is immediately followed by St Stephen’s Day on Tuesday.

Italian non-holiday holidays

There are seven dates in Italy’s calendar that are considered official but not public holidays, meaning you don’t get a day off. 

These are known as ‘solennità civili’ (civil feasts) and include National Unity Day on the first Sunday of November, the day of Italy’s patron saints Francesco and Caterina on October 4th, and the anniversary of the unification of Italy on March 17th.

Display from Italian Air Force for Italy's Unity Day

National Unity Day, which is celebrated every year on the first Sunday of November, is one of Italy’s ‘civil feasts’. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

That’s in addition to nearly 30 national and international days of commemoration or celebration that Italy recognises, including Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27th), Europe Day (May 9th) and Christopher Columbus Day (October 12th). 

Much like the previously mentioned solennità civili, none of the above will get you a day off.

Other holidays

If you’re an employee in Italy, you’re entitled to paid holiday time, and the very minimum allowance is four weeks (or 20 days) a year – that’s 18 days less than in Austria, which leads the EU pack in minimum paid leave.

That said, many Italian contracts, particularly those for state employees, allow for five weeks (or 25 days) of paid leave per year. 

It’s also worth noting that, by law, employees must take at least two weeks of paid leave consecutively (i.e. two in a row) and all paid leave accumulated over the course of a year must be taken within 18 months from the end of that year.

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