My experiences with the Italian Health System

When Jim and I started seriously considering moving to Italy, we investigated the Italian health system. It is as different from America’s as you can get…  The Italian constitution states that “The Republic safeguards health as a fundamental right of the individual and as a collective interest, and guarantees free medical care to the indigent.” And we learned that Italy has a highly rated medical system – second in the world, according to Wikipedia! I want to use this blog post to share my personal experiences with the medical system, including my recent Total Knee Replacement surgery. No pretty pictures in this blog post…

Year 1 (and 2!) – Private Medical Insurance

We applied for Elective Residence Visas to allow us to move to Italy. One of the many requirements was to show that we had Private Medical Insurance because the Italian Government recognizes that there are many actions that must be taken before new immigrants are eligible to become part of the Italian health system. During a pre-move visit, we signed up for a plan that covered major and unplanned medical expenses – similar to what we would call catastrophic coverage in the USA. The coverage values seemed low to us (€30000 each) but our lawyer said that it seemed adequate to him. The annual cost was €1614 for both of us. We expected not to use the insurance, but unexpectedly Jim needed hernia surgery. I wrote about this experience in one of my earlier blog posts. We had to pay all costs at the hospital but the insurance reimbursed us for all of it! Because of COVID, we still weren’t able to sign up for the Italian medical system as our insurance was getting ready to expire. We renewed the policy and used it one other time, with the same results – all costs covered with no deductibles. During this period, we paid the full cost for our prescription medicines, but they cost us less than half of the co-pays that we had in America with our health insurance.

Participation in the Italian Health System

Once we became official residents, we were able to sign up for the Italian Health System and received our coveted Tessera Sanitara cards. We had read many places that this insurance is “free” but also read that there were costs involved. It turns out that the Constitution and the laws state that it is “free” but with the kind of visa that we have, we were required to make a voluntary contribution for the insurance. LOL! The first of many bits of confusion regarding the Italian Health System. We pay €2788 per year for this “public” insurance.  We selected a primary doctor that speaks some English and has an office close by.

Working with our primary doctor

I don’t actually visit our primary doctor frequently. After my initial visit and a review of my medical histories, he provided prescriptions for my regular medications and encouraged me to use WhatsApp to send further requests to him. So, whenever I need a prescription for medicine, a referral for a special visit, or a medical test, I simply send him a message with WhatsApp. He writes the prescription and leaves it at the pharmacy in his building and I pick it up that day or sometimes the next. Very easy and efficient but a bit impersonal! Many prescriptions cost nothing, some have a co-pay up to €20.

When it is time for a visit to our primary doctor, I send him a message via WhatsApp and he tells us when to come. Usually that day or the next. When you enter the waiting room for several doctors, you simply ask the group of people waiting “L’ultimo per Dottore Morotti” or “Who is the last person waiting for Doctor Morotti?” Someone should acknowledge that they are the last and you sit down and wait your turn; you need to remember who was last, so that you can enter the doctor’s office after that person finishes. When the next person enters the waiting room with the same question, you acknowledge that you were last and they now know where they fall in line. When the doctor is ready for the next patient, he simply appears at the door and says “Chi è il prossimo?” or “Who is next?” This sounds like a wonderful and informal approach, but seldom works as smoothly as it should. They typically are confused by my pronunciation and there are often disagreements about who is actually last or next. This approach is so characteristic of the Italian culture… I giggle to myself every time I watch it in action.

Once it is your turn and you are in the doctor’s office, you share your questions, requests, concerns, problems. There is no nurse, no unnecessary blood pressure readings or weigh-ins and frankly I can’t remember him actually examining me.  He fills out needed forms and prescriptions and hands them to you.  At the end of any visit to a doctor, they give you a one-page summary of the results. You wait while they type and print it or simply hand write it. The doctor may keep some records for their patients but the expectation is that you maintain your own records. There is no charge to see your primary doctor. Once I needed to pay to have a specific form completed and I had to pay €50 for the administrative costs. He took out his credit card machine and I gave him a credit card… no billing department needed! A specialist visit typically requires a payment of around €30.

Working with a private orthopedic doctor

When my knee started hurting in November 2020, we still weren’t covered by the Italian Health System so I went to a private doctor. Once we were covered, I continued to see the same doctor as I had a lot of confidence in him. His office is run a little closer to an American doctor’s office. He has a receptionist who checks you in, accepts the payment, and schedules appointments. This doctor speaks some English and his receptionist speaks English very well.  During an early visit he reviewed my Xrays and MRIs and said that my right knee was in terrible shape. I would need a total knee replacement within a year or two. I was definitely in pain but had no idea that my knee was so bad. Jim had struggled for years with his knees and visited the same doctor. The doctor said that mine was much worse and I would “get to go first”. My initial visit was €130 and included a cortisone shot.

The cortisone shot helped a lot and I was back to walking the streets and wall of Lucca pain free. About six months later the pain started to return and we were getting ready for Derek and Dani’s visit to Italy. I had plans for lots of fun activities and did not want to be in pain for their visit! I returned to the doctor and got a second cortisone shot (only €50 this time) and was pain free again. The doctor indicated that I should plan to have knee surgery in 2022. But the bad news was that the cortisone shot lasted only about a week… After an exchange of emails, we targeted February 2022 for the surgery. I was in pain during their visit and skipped a few of the activities, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying my time with them.

Surgery – private or public insurance?

We had planned to use our private medical insurance because the doctor is a private doctor. But then we learned that we could not renew the same private medical insurance policy because we were now residents; that kind of policy is only for non-residents. So, we asked our insurance company for a similar policy for residents. Bad news, cost was higher and all pre-existing conditions were excluded. I had heard horror stories about people waiting many months for knee operations using the public insurance and was in too much pain for that. I visited my primary doctor to ask how long it would take to get a public orthopedic doctor and get the surgery scheduled. I explained my situation and he confirmed that my orthopedic doctor was the best in Lucca and said that he would certainly accept my Tessera Sanitara (i.e., the public insurance) for my surgery. Another moment of confusion – could my private doctor use the public insurance for the surgery??? I contacted my doctor and waited anxiously for the response. Of course, they would accept the Tessera Sanitara. Certainly no one would be expected to pay the full cost of the surgery! Confused but happy!!!!

Time for surgery – Total Knee Replacement

I won’t provide the full story of the surgery and recovery. If you are familiar with this surgery, you’ll know that it is particularly painful and a difficult recovery. Instead, I’ll provide a list of some of the similarities and differences between an Italian and American hospital visit:

Different – my hospital is a 9-minute walk from my apartment… if I could walk that far. It likely took Jim 12 minutes to drive there…

Similar – pre surgical tests and meeting with the anesthesiologist scheduled a few days before surgery

Different – bring your own crutches, pajamas (no gowns provided!) and all toiletries

Similar – bland food. Even the pasta.

Probably similar – no visitors because of COVID

Different – minimal pain meds. I received intravenous acetaminophen (Tylenol) several times a day. When the pain got bad, I insisted on a stronger pain medicine and received “something like” morphine. Two times.

Similar – high quality staff (doctors, nurses, aides, therapists, etc.).

Different – 6 nights in the hospital versus 0-2 in America

Different – cost for doctors, surgery, hospital, Xrays, physical therapy in hospital, etc. was €0.

Recovery – Total Knee Replacement

From the moment I heard the word “surgery” I started worrying about all of the steps in our apartment. We live on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors (with the ground floor designated as zero). There are two different sets of stone steps before reaching the elevator then once you reach our apartment, we have four more sets of stairs. Some have just a few steps… one has 12 steps. There are two ground-floor Airbnb apartments in our palazzo complex that are owned by our neighbors. We rented one of them for my first two weeks home from the hospital. The apartment was perfect for those initial weeks, including a front door that opened directly onto a paved road for my first walks. Most of the streets in Lucca have cobblestones, so a paved street seemed like a luxury.

Given that my knee would hardly bend, it was not easy to get into our Mini Cooper. My doctor referred me to Marco, a physical therapist who comes to your house. He comes 3 days a week and I do need to cover the cost of these sessions. We have had several friends visit us and provide meals. A month or two ago we met a woman who recently moved to Lucca. It turns out that she was a nurse in America and worked at a hospital in Reston, Virginia that we visited more than we would have liked. Joanne visited us nearly daily, giving me my blood thinner injections, changing the bandages, and answering my stupid questions.

I have now moved back to my apartment. Marco walked me to my apartment from the rented Airbnb. He gave me instructions on how to tackle each set of stairs. My days are now filled with PT exercises, time using an automated knee bender, and walks around town. I’m also trying to pick up my daily chores. The weather yesterday was unseasonably warm so after our walk, we stopped for a Spritz at PuntoZero, a café across the street from our apartment. Allesio surprised us with a candle in our Aperitivo snack.

I have months to go before I am fully recovered but I feel very blessed by the good medical care that I have received and the many family members and friends that have supported me through texts, phone calls, visits and meals. And most of all the help provided by Jim all day and all night.

12 thoughts on “My experiences with the Italian Health System

    • Yes, it was quite the experience. I’m going to do everything that I can to avoid the same surgery on my left knee. So far, I’ve had no problems with it…

      • My grandma, sister and one brother had both knees done. I hope I can avoid it, but will be interested to see how you feel about the results at the end. Wising you a speedy recovery.

  1. While a different blog than your usual, this was very interesting to me. I appreciate hearing about your experience and the differences and similarities in the two healthcare systems. Sounds like an overall positive experience & outcome. Glad you have this behind you and are looking forward to more adventures on your hopefully pain-free knee. I had a hip replacement several years ago, and have had zero problems ever since. I hope your recovery is just as successful! (And that’s a great photo of you! Your hair is getting long!).

    • Many people have shared their success stories of hip and knee replacements. It has been a real encouragement. And this is the longest my hair has been in over 30 years! Why not???

  2. What a great description of your experience and the comparisons between the two systems. It helps to know what to expect as I am going to be in the Italian system soon. I want to say here too that you have done remarkably well and I wish you a continued non-eventful recovery!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your personal medical experiences. A very informative and interesting read!
    Looking forward to meeting up with you and Jim in the near future, as we’ve secured an appartamento and will be arriving in Lucca in March.
    We never had time to enjoy an aperitivo with you when we were in Lucca this past October, as you kindly offered. Hoping to meet up soon.
    Very best wishes for pain-free healing and a rapid recovery –
    Linda Slattery & Roark Herron

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