Portuguese health care is international-standard and was ranked by WHO as the 12th (out of 190) best system among UN-member countries. Medical tourism is a growing industry in this country. While all cities and large towns have excellent hospital and health care facilities, some more remote regions may be several hours from full-service care.
Anyone considering Portugal as a retirement destination, especially those coming from the United States, needs to understand the health care system before setting out. Portugal has two separate health care systems — a publicly financed National Health Service (Serviço Nacional de Saúde, or SNS, in Portuguese) that is available to all citizens and functions in the same manner as any other nationalized European health care system, along with a private health care network available on a fee basis.
Resident citizens of the European Union and anyone legally working in Portugal and contributing to the social security system through automatic deductions from their paychecks (along with his/her family) is entitled to use the public health system for free or with only modest co-payments. EU citizens visiting Portugal on a short-term basis will need a European Health Insurance Card; those intending to stay longer will need to apply for a health user’s ID number once they are registered as residents with the local town hall and have acquired a residence certificate.
Non-EU citizens intending to relocate to Portugal will need to provide a letter from a doctor stating that that are in good health and free from any communicable disease with their visa application. Proof of adequate health insurance will also be required, in the form of an invoice or an annual statement showing the name of the insurance company, policyholder names and dates that this coverage is valid and proof of repatriation and evacuation coverage.
Health Care in Portugal at a Glance
Portugal’s national health system tends to lean more toward the reactive than the proactive when it comes to dealing with illnesses or medical conditions, meaning they put more emphasis on curing something after it happens than preventing it in the first place.
Doctors are generally trained to North American or European standards (or are even foreign-born themselves), and many speak English, especially in the tourist destinations. That will not be the case in rural areas, however. Most doctors divide their time between the SNS and private practices.
Some hospitals and health centers (centro de saúde) offer both private and state-provided healthcare, and it is up to patients to inform them which service they require. They often may also have separate surgery times for private patients and those treated under the state system. As a general rule, if you are asked to pay upfront, you are not being treated under the Portuguese health service. All hospital treatment in the state system requires referral from a doctor.
Pharmacies in Portugal
Pharmacies (farmácias), identifiable by their green cross, are available throughout Portugal. They are usually open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 1pm, and 3pm to 7pm. On weekends they are open from 9am to 1pm. A list of pharmacies providing a 24-hour service is available from any regular pharmacy.
There is not one set prescription charge in Portugal – prescription medicines are subsidized from 15% to 90%, depending on their use and need, and even users of the state system will often be required to make a co-payment when buying prescription medication. Since qualified pharmacists manage most of the pharmacies in Portugal, many medicines are easily obtained without a prescription.
Dentists in Portugal
Only children between the ages of 3 and 16 and pensioners over the age of 65 registered with the state system have access to free dental care in Portugal. All other adults must make co-payments in the state system or avail themselves of the network of private dentists, which is extensive and up to North American standards for the most part. A general consultation will cost 25 to 30 euros in most areas; a cleaning between 65 and 75 euros.