Since 1978, Italy has had its own national health service (the SSN or Servizio Sanitario Nazionale), similar to the British NHS, and based on the principle of ‘universal entitlement’, with the State providing free and equal access to preventive medical care and rehabilitation services to all residents. And in theory, EU visitors shouldn’t need health insurance, being entitled to the same health care entitlements as any Italian. But not every national health service is the same, nor does it provide the same benefits. In Italy, free and universal health care, coupled with an ageing population, has put a major strain on the system. Now there is an elaborate system of co-payment for drugs, specialists' consultations and treatments, and lab tests. Some Italians are exempted from co-payments such as elderly, chronic patients, disabled individuals and people with low incomes.
It’s safer to ensure you’ve adequate health insurance, it invariably comes as part of your travel insurance anyway. British visitors should always carry a completed E111, obtainable free of charge from British Post Offices. This will help you get emergency medical treatment in Italian state hospitals. Australia also has a healthcare arrangement with Italy. For more information, visitors should check with their home Government department with responsibility for overseas travel. American readers can go to http://travel.state.gov/italy.html and UK readers to www.fco.gov.uk/travel.
Ensure your travel and health insurance is up to date. What does it cover you for? Will your insurer arrange to have you shipped home if you are incapacitated? Can they supply a cash advance to settle up-front demands for payment from a hospital? Trust us, it’s always a false economy to travel without insurance. Also, check that your travel or motor insurance protects you against injuries to other parties; accidents can happen and you don’t want to be dealing with both a foreign language and a foreign legal system single handed. You’ll find opticians quite cheap and dentists rather expensive in Italy. As ever, if you can pre-empt emergencies (have a dental check-up and buy spare glasses and contact lenses before you travel) then do so.
You don’t need any vaccines to visit Italy and, contrary to popular myth, the water is safe to drink, though carrying a bottle of mineral water is wise; in a hot Italian summer you’re far more likely to suffer from dehydration than poisoning. Ensure you protect yourself adequately against the heat and sun. Mediterranean dwellers are far less enthusiastic about exposing their flesh to blazing midday sun than northern Europeans. Short-term heatstroke and long-term skin cancers are just two of the dangers. Drinking alcohol and then baking in the sun is another surefire way of dehydrating and impairing your judgement about how hot it really is. Cover up, and use sun blocks if in doubt.
Mosquitoes can be a problem though a nuisance rather than a danger. There are any number of ingenious answers, from nets, to repellent creams and sprays, to dinky little devices that deliver an electrical charge thus removing the swelling. Take a trip to your local Farmacia where they will be happy to give advice. In fact a trip to the pharmacy is good for a range of minor ailments, with Italian pharmacists qualified to make diagnoses and hand out prescriptions for a limited range of complaints. If they can’t help, they will be able to refer you to the local doctor (medico). Should you need a repeat prescription from your home doctor, then take your empty pill bottle with you, as many drugs are dispensed by trade rather than generic names, and these can differ from country to country – think Nurofen and Ibuprofen.
If you need A&E or ER, head for the local hospital and its Pronto Soccorso department. Emergency phone numbers are as follows: 112 for the Carabinieri, 113 for general emergencies (ask for Ospedale or ambulanza), 115 for the fire service, 116 for roadside assistance and 118 for an ambulance.
Alternative therapies are also very popular in Italy, and whether you require Rolfing, acupressure, aroma or colour therapy, or any of a thousand other treatments, the Yellow Pages (Pagine Gialle) is the place to look.