The quality of health care and health care facilities in Portugal are generally good (although variable) and have improved considerably in recent years, although they aren’t up to the high standard taken for granted in North America and northern Europe.
There are many English-speaking and foreign doctors in resort areas and major cities, although hospital facilities are limited in some rural areas. Nursing care and post-hospital assistance are below what most northern Europeans and North Americans take for granted, and spending on preventive medicine is relatively low.
Health care costs per head in Portugal are lower than average in the European Union (EU) and the country spends a relatively small percentage of its GDP on health, although this has improved in recent years (7.8 per cent in 2000, higher than Britain). Public and private medicine operate alongside each other in Portugal and complement one another, although public health facilities are limited in some areas.
Portugal has a public health system, providing free or low cost health care for those who contribute to Portuguese social security ( segurança social), plus their families and retirees (including those from other EU countries). There are subsidised prescriptions for members aged over 65 and charges of from 40 to 100 per cent for non-essential medicines plus substantial contributions for many services including spectacles, dentures, dental and spa treatment, and other treatment.
If you don’t qualify for health care under the public health system, it’s essential to have private health insurance (in fact, you won’t usually get a residence card without it). This is often recommended in any case if you can afford it, due to the inadequacy of public health services (which like most, are strapped for cash) and long waiting lists for specialist appointments and non-urgent operations in many areas. Visitors to Portugal should have holiday health insurance if they aren’t covered by a reciprocal arrangement.
There are state health centres ( centros de saúde) in most areas (typically open from 8am to 8pm) which treat minor health problems and where it’s easier to get prompt emergency treatment than at a public hospital. There are 24-hour emergency hospitals in major towns and private hospitals and clinics in major towns and resort areas (including small British hospitals in Lisbon and Porto).
English-speaking Portuguese doctors and English and other foreign doctors practise in resort areas and major cities, many of who advertise in the local expatriate press. You can obtain free advice for minor ailments from pharmacies ( farmácias), open from 9am to 1pm and 3 to 7pm Monday to Friday and from 9am to 1pm on Saturdays.
There’s normally a duty pharmacy ( farmácia de serviço) open outside usual business hours. A list of duty pharmacies is posted in pharmacy windows and announced in the local press (you can also telephone 118 and ask for the name of your local duty pharmacy).
The Portuguese are among the world’s healthiest people and have one of the highest life expectancies in the European Union. However, the country also once had one of the highest infant mortality rates in western Europe, although it’s fallen considerably in recent years as medical services have improved.
The incidence of heart disease in Portugal is among the lowest in the world, a fact officially contributed in large part to their diet (which includes lots of garlic, olive oil and red wine), as is the incidence of cancers. However, the country has a high incidence of smoking-related health problems (the percentage of smokers is among the highest in the EU).