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Visiting the Emergency Room in Brussels, Belgium

By alison - February 1, 2013

Health Care System in Belgium

Using the Health Care System in Belgium doesn’t have to be scary.

No expat wants to end up in the hospital in their new country, but we do want to know a decent health care system is available if and when we need it. I recently visited the Emergency Room in a Brussels hospital and, for the most part, it was a better experience than I expected.

I’ve had a lot of experience with the Belgian health care system, over our 8 years here. I have a medical condition that requires frequent consults with my doctor and the occasional visit to a specialist. Before moving to Belgium, I asked my Canadian physician if I should be worried about my health abroad. She promptly informed me to have no fear as “Belgium has some of the best health care in the world.”

As far as I’m concerned, she was correct. My GP here is wonderful. In fact, way back in 2005, I wrote about my first doctor visit in Belgium. Since then, I’ve been to several hospitals, in Flanders, for routine tests and I’ve even visited with a specialist in my condition. All have been efficient, quick and affordable. But I had never tested emergency care in Belgium and I had never been to a hospital in Brussels city centre. That is, until this week.

First let me say, this wasn’t a life or death emergency. (Thank goodness!) During our cold snap, two weeks ago, I fell on my neighbour’s icy sidewalk. I reached out my arm to stop my fall and my wrist and elbow bore the brunt of the impact. I was shaken up and sore, but didn’t think anything was broken.

For the next few days, I rested my arm in a sling, but it failed to get better. I sought out my doctor’s advice. She examined my aching arm and was pretty sure it wasn’t broken but suggested I visit the Emergency Room (Casualty, for our British readers), for x-rays, if it wasn’t better in a week.

A week came and went and, although I was gaining a bit more mobility in my arm, I still couldn’t lift anything, without experiencing severe pain. So, on day ten, we decided it was time to make sure nothing was broken. We headed for our closest ER (recommended by my GP), the Clinique Saint-Jean.

Locating the ER was our first challenge. Entering through the clinic’s main doors into a bright and airy lobby, I was feeling positive. This looked similar to the hospitals my GP sent me to in Leuven, with which we always had good experiences.

We followed the signs to Urgences (Emergency) and that’s when it started getting a bit odd. The signs led us outside and through a parking garage… right past the morgue. I don’t know about you, but this isn’t exactly what I want to see on my way to the ER.

Visiting the Emergency Room in Brussels

No expat wants to end up in the Emergency room but it’s good to know it’s there when we need it!

Finally, we found a windowless door, leading to a small, dreary reception window. Although there were several people behind the glass window, only one seemed to be slowly dealing with patient intake. We waited in the chilly hall as the automatic door opened and closed, onto the parking garage.

Finally it was our turn. We explained the problem, my information was taken and I was instructed to sit in the waiting room until called. It was another bleak, windowless and chilly room. It was about 9:30 am and there was only one other person waiting. We settled in.

The room started to fill up quickly, but like me, no one seemed to have life threatening problems. A few cuts, some pains, and a hacking cough. Not long after 10:00, my name was called along with two other patients. We were led into a small room where we were each pointed to one of the three beds.

It wasn’t long before someone came to see what I was in for. I explained the situation as best as I could, in French, and, even though she didn’t speak English herself, she notified the doctor we were Anglophones. I wasn’t expecting it, but it was comforting to be addressed in our native language. The doctor examined my arm and, although she agreed it probably wasn’t broken, sent me upstairs to have it x-rayed.

We took the elevator and started to follow the signs to radiology, when we were stopped by an orderly. He took a look at the slip of paper the ER doctor had given me and instructed us to follow him. He handed the paper to a woman stationed behind another glass partition and pointed us to a corridor. “Go wait in the first room to the right,” he said and then he disappeared.

Feeling pretty happy we had just by-passed the jam-packed waiting room for radiology, we tried to follow his directions. We found ourselves in a darkened room that looked like it was under construction. (Either that or it was being used as a film set for a hospital post-apocalyptic world).

We stood looking at one another until a technician entered the room and, with a confused look, asked us what we were doing there. He then pointed us to a waiting room… the third right, in the same corridor.

After another short wait, the same technician beckoned me into the x-ray room.  He manipulated my arm into a series of painful positions and took six different views of my arm. Then he sent us back down to the ER to wait for the results.

X-Ray

Whew! Nothing broken!

After waiting another 15 minutes or so, we were called back into the ER. The doctor told me the arm definitely wasn’t broken (hurrah!) and I just needed to keep resting it. The nurse returned and rubbed some cooling gel on my sprained muscles, wrapped my arm up and sent us on our way.

In fact, our longest wait was back where we started, as we tried to pay. There was still only one clerk dealing with patient intake (and now taking payment from several people), while everyone else in the room ignored the lengthening cue. It seemed an inefficient system to say the least.

Our final bill however, was a happy surprise. The admission to emergency, plus the x-rays, cost us 100 Euros; far, far less than an uninsured ER visit would cost in Canada. We were also in and out in around two hours; nearly unheard of in an ER back home.

Other than a typical (for Belgium) lack of clear signage and a rather inefficient ER intake, my Belgian Emergency Room experience was a positive one. The staff was friendly (both the ER doctor and technician spoke English without me even asking), the wait times were pretty short, and the price was reasonable (at least by North American standards). My arm however, is still on the mend.

Do you have experience with the medical system or a particular hospital in Belgium? We’d like to hear your experiences too. Tell us the good, the bad and the ugly, in the comments below.

Looking for more resources for living in Belgium? Check out our Expat Resources page.

Alison
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu She landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about this quirky little country. She loves to discover Belgium's hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She loves to travel the world with her husband, Andrew, and spend quiet nights reading with her cats and a glass of red wine. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison
Orange is ready for lazy Sunday night too. https://t.co/6qyzfwTLrz - 17 hours ago

17 comments

  1. Comment by Mirka

    Mirka February 1, 2013 at 11:04

    My average time of waiting in Leuven ER (with serious migraine) is 4 hours. Definitely not the fastest service!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 1, 2013 at 11:08

      yikes! That’s almost as long as Canadian wait times! I’m starting to think it’s no fun to go to the ER anywhere.

  2. Comment by Evelyn

    Evelyn February 1, 2013 at 11:08

    I’ve had a few visits to casualty in Leuven with children and my mother-in-law. Can’t fault the level of care – it has always been excellent and they are extra fast with the children, taking them though a separate triage.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 1, 2013 at 11:20

      That’s good to know Evelyn. The last thing you want is to be waiting around the ER with small children.

  3. Comment by Vi

    Vi February 1, 2013 at 12:43

    Al, I am taking my hat off for the fact that you can type (so engagingly at that!) after having been through such pain and even the ER.
    Is it getting better? They say that strained muscles / legaments hurt more than broken bones… can’t say if that’s true, but in a way it seems that you will soon be out of it :) yeehay! :)

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 1, 2013 at 17:35

      Thanks! It’s definitely on the mend. Finally!

  4. Comment by Whyiamnotskinny

    Whyiamnotskinny February 1, 2013 at 15:09

    When I first got to Brussels with zero french, I had to go to Erasme Hospital for a specialist visit…which later became a trip back for surgery in their day clinic… and all I can say that with my limited French and their limited English – they were fantastic. When I awoke all groggy … the nurses were the nicest folk that I have ever encountered and it was as if my mom or aunts were looking after me.
    In both visits – their attempts to speak english and make me feel at ease was heart warming!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 1, 2013 at 17:34

      It definitely makes a big difference being spoken to in your own language. The last thing I want to think about when I’m ill or injured is how to conjugate French verbs :)

  5. Comment by Bernadette

    Bernadette February 1, 2013 at 16:38

    Been to “urgences” 3 times at Cliniques St-Luc 1) huge bump on head sustained at school 2) 3 teeth knocked out 3) suspected broken arm. 1) sent immediately to out of hours doctor, just concussion, 15 minutes 2) sent immediately to on call dentist, xrays, anaesthetic, re-insertion of teeth, took about 1 1/2 hours and no waiting 3) 10 minutes of wait for xray, taken up to ward for next 5 hours to wait for operation and overnight stay following. So longest waiting time was 10 minutes! Maybe our family has just been lucky. The broken arm was re-set by a Dutch (Netherlands) surgeon who was delighted she could finally speak English as her French wasn’t too hot. The overnight stay and operation was 1000 euro, 700 euro was refunded and I’m still waiting for DKV to refund me the last 300 euro :-( that is the only negative thing I have to say and nothing to do with the hospital.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 1, 2013 at 17:33

      Wow! Very speedy indeed! Good luck with DKV. They’ve been very slow on some of our refunds as well.

  6. Comment by Rosy

    Rosy February 1, 2013 at 18:55

    UZ Brussels is great…had my baby there last year and they speak English! But all the billing is in Dutch and I only know French so wasn’t sure what I’m being billed for since there are a lot of codes. But great facility in Jette

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 2, 2013 at 15:43

      That’s good to know Rosy! Thanks for the feedback.

  7. Comment by Shweta

    Shweta February 2, 2013 at 06:46

    This post comes at a funny time. My husband just hurt his pinkie finger and had to go to the GP yesterday. Everything is fine but his pinkie is seriously swollen.
    During my fellowship in 2004, I had seriously hurt my nose when my boyfriend at the time (my husband now) took me to the ER. As a fellow I was worried about the bill before I could even consider the seriousnes of my injury – comes from my fear of the American healthcare system. We paid 40 euros and have been anxiously waiting for additional bills to come our way. Its 2013 now, its safe to say that ER visit costed us 40 euros which included x-rays and ENT specialist.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 2, 2013 at 15:35

      I hope your hubby’s finger is better soon! I know what you mean about expecting extra bills. After 7 years I still giggle with glee when I pay about 5 euro for my prescription that used to cost me 50$ back home :)

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 4, 2013 at 09:34

      Thanks! We both know there is ALWAYS a story in Belgium :)

  8. Comment by alex

    alex February 22, 2013 at 13:00

    I needed to visit the ER because of a urinary infection that hit me on the weekend (plus at that time I didn’t have a general doctor). The entire visit to the ER lasted around 5 hours, during which I was hooked up to the machine checking my vitals (which would start beeping if I attempted to disconnect myself in order to go to the toilet). I understand I was not a death risk, but the wait was not very comfortable. Nevertheless, I should not complain as this was definitely better than the service in my home country (Romania.

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