This summer, I traveled with my husband and daughters to Iceland. We took a glacier tour, hiked to thunderous waterfalls and went for a dip in the warm geothermal springs. As a health writer – and a mom wanting to be prepared – I studied up on Iceland’s healthcare scene before we left.

     

In many ways, Iceland’s healthcare services are similar to what we have in the U.S. In Reykjavík, you can see a general practitioner right in your neighborhood, and some pharmacies are open around the clock. Iceland is also home to a 1,000-bed academic medical center with just about any medical subspecialty a person could need.

This all sounded great, but our day trips took us hours away from Reykjavik. We traveled to remote areas only accessible by 4×4 vehicles with monster-truck-like wheels. On top of that, temperatures in some of the geothermal springs were more than 200 degrees. Clearly, I needed the 411 on health services.

Here’s what I learned:

  • In case of an emergency, dial 112. This is the same as dialing 911 in the U.S. Even if you don’t have international phone service, Iceland’s emergency response services are available anywhere you have phone reception.
  • Doctors see a lot of tourists. There’s a general practitioner in most towns, and they often speak English. (The official language of Iceland is Icelandic.) The doctors also have plenty of experience treating tourists for injuries from falls and car accidents as well as acute illnesses.
  • Don’t be alarmed if you can’t get an appointment. It can take weeks to get a doctor’s appointment. But most doctor’s offices have daily walk-in hours.
  • Access to care is limited on evenings and weekends. Doctor’s offices and pharmacies outside of Reykjavik are only open on weekdays during business hours. The good news is that doctors are often available by phone and email on evenings and sometimes weekends.
  • For minor issues, see a pharmacist. In Iceland, pharmacists dispense medical advice as often as they do drugs. Pharmacists often diagnose and treat sore throats, stomach issues, minor infections and other common problems. If you would be better served by a doctor, the pharmacist will help you find one.
  • Know that medications are different. For example, you may not find Tylenol, but you will find medicine with acetaminophen, which is Tylenol’s active ingredient. Medications also may have additional active ingredients, which means the dosing may be different.
  • For serious accidents, you may get a one-way flight to Reykjavik. Each of the 8 hospitals in Iceland has an emergency department or similar service. But the only major trauma center is in Reykjavik. If you’re in dire straits, emergency services may send you there via air ambulance.

If you’re one of the thousands of Americans headed to Iceland for a memorable vacation, hopefully this information will help. Don’t forget to bring a heavy jacket and stay safe out there!

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