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Doctors, Clinics, Medicine Posted by on Apr 3, 2012 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

Edit: This is a very long post, I’ve edited it to make it a little more concise but I’ll do shorter ones in the future. Also, welcome, Hulda!

Sometimes when I find new things or people correct me I go back and edit old posts to reflect the new information. For example, I added a doctor’s note in “English in Iceland“, a translation I got from someone in “Phones and Texts“, and added another site to “Icelandic Ebooks and Audiobooks“. I encourage you all to correct me on anything you may find on this blog even if it’s really old and I’ve forgotten about it. (I’m not Icelandic, I’m not fluent in Icelandic either, I don’t even have any Icelandic flatmates, I just live here!)

Again in this post I’ll be talking about visiting the doctor, and medicine, because I have been to a few more varied clinics by now.

The first thing is actually making an appointment with the doctor. I’ve personally never called for an appointment, I’ve always either Emailed the doctor directly or another doctor made an appointment for me. This is mostly because I don’t want to deal with the high likelihood of getting a secretary who doesn’t understand English well. Every doctor I’ve ever been to, including even just nurses and assistants, have had perfectly acceptable English and they all understood me fine. Apart from that I’ve had at least three doctors who also spoke good Swedish.

Frankly a lot of clinics (for both physical and mental health) seem to be in shady-looking or strange places, to me. Places like the top floor of a store, a back corner of a small mall, I even had one that was in part also a library. The only place that seems to be a more normal “actual clinic building that looks like a clinic and is only a clinic” is in fact the real hospital. Even the health clinic in town looked like it was actually part of something else, although I don’t know if it is. This speaks nothing of the service, it’s just a warning that you may get lost when looking for the destination because it doesn’t look like what you expect.

You make the appointment (typically they need your name, kennitala, and phone number). Often they’ll text you the day before your appointment as a reminder, and so here are two I copied down:

Fra Insula: Minni a pantadan tima hja (doctor’s name) a morgunn 22.2.2012 klukkan 12:15. Vinsamlegast tilkynnid forfoll i sima (phone number)
(Basically) From Insula: Remember your appointment with (doctor’s name) tomorrow (Feb. 22nd 2012) at 12:15. Please notify us if you cannot attend by calling (phone number).

Now a mini test! Can you make sense of this one based off your Icelandic, the text I just translated above, the “phones and texts” post from before, and keeping in mind that you may often find typos? (Sjöfn is a name, but do you know if it’s a male or female one?)
fritt SMS sent fra Ja.is
Minni a tima kl 1 tridjud. Vinsamltilk forföll fljott i (phone number). Sjöfn Midst. salfrædinga Bæjarhr6.

This is something like what the doctor may give you if you need a blood test. The doctor may fill it out and then have you give to the hospital or clinic where your blood will be drawn, or they may do something electronic and write a note, or they may just tell you to “get a blood test” with no further instructions. The blood test results are sent back to your doctor about a week after the test, and the doctor should contact you from there. Notice the amount of loanwords:

Many things in Iceland are electronic when in the US they aren’t. Your doctor can pull up your medical records in two seconds on the computer, they can submit forms electronically and print you a copy, they can submit prescriptions electronically and the every pharmacy in Iceland can receive them if the doctor wants, along with you being able to (sometimes) Email or text your doctors to talk about your status or medicine refills instead of having to call or visit them. Once I needed an emergency paper written by my doctor for the Directorate of Immigration and he wrote it and send it while on holiday and we had been talking through texts.

If you have a prescription that you know you’ll need to have for a long time, they may give you a “prescription card” at the pharmacy. It’s literally just a sticker with your info stuck to a business card (they print out all such stickers on the spot, for example the sticker with your dosage instructions that they then stick to your little medicine bottle – and they can also do it in English). It will say something like how many refills the card is good for, when you need to get your next refill, and what your dosage is. Some stickers may also have your name and address on them. You keep the card and bring it back at the refill time, so you don’t have to bother the doctor for another prescription.

I’ve never heard of a pharmacy not having the prescribed medicine. Even if you go to pick up your medicine the same day as getting the prescription, they’ll have it. The only danger is if you get very sick at night or during the weekend, because there are no 24-hour pharmacies and the grocery stores don’t sell medicine. The pharmacy is also where you may find chap-stick, lotions, electric toothbrushes, hair ties/elastics, reflectors (those things that reflect car headlights that you’re supposed to attach to your coat when walking in the dark), makeup, and sometimes candy.

America has very different medicine names and brands than Iceland. Even if it’s the same medicine it might have a different European name, or an Icelandic name, and the packaging is also all different so you can’t expect to go into a store and either instantly find what you need or have someone know the brand you want. In that case, just ask the pharmacist for something general like “headache medicine”. Here are some titles/words from the little medicine I can find around our flat:
Íbúfen – Ibuprofen
Sótt hreinsunar spritt – antiseptic (rubbing alcohol)
Tafla, töflur – tablet, tablets
Verkur – ache, pain (there was a funny word for “hangover” or “hangover cure” that I saw somewhere but I can’t remember it)
Alnæmi – HIV/AIDS

This is pain medicine that you mix in with a drink. I’d never seen something like this before but I was told it’s common in Europe. Similarly there are vitamins that you put in a cup of water and they bubble and dissolve, then you drink it after it stops bubbling.

These are cod-liver oil “pearls” (pills) from Bónus, that cheapest grocery store chain again. I’ve often heard that “every Icelander takes a spoonful of cod liver oil every day” (although this isn’t entirely true, it seems that a lot of people do, especially older people) and that parents make their kids take it. You can get it either in liquid or pill form. I tried the liquid form and while it doesn’t taste disgusting it tastes bad (it might be better to mix it in with food) but not just that, the seal wasn’t the best and the bottle liked to leak and get all sticky (imagine your honey bottle). The pills pictured are tasteless.

When you get over-the-counter medicine, it will come with pages of detailed warning instructions that will be in Icelandic, but also possibly Finnish and Scandinavian. It’s also worth noting that when I bought a first-aid kit everything was in more mainstream languages like English, French, and German. The only place I was able to find disinfectant at was at the pharmacy, and only in little tiny bottles the size of glasses-cleaner bottles.

Doctors and counselors also generally don’t see you very often, and they try keep visits short. If you just came in for one question, after the question is answered it’s your time to leave unless you have more (even if you only stayed for five minutes). It’s possible for example to go to a therapist or doctor once a week, but unless you really need to go that often it’ll probably happen more like once a month or every couple months. The health clinic can be walk-in for something like if you need a nurse to give you a shot (maybe you were just diagnosed with diabetes and don’t know how to inject yourself, for example) or an EKG, but if you want a meeting with an actual doctor they will most likely schedule something.

I think I talked about this before, but basically there are three main ways for paying the doctor. One is paying the secretary before you go in, which seems to be only used for clinic visits (like the injection example) and small things like getting a blood test at the hospital (though you might have already paid for the blood test when you paid for the doctor’s visit that demands the test). Another is paying the doctor directly, which seems to be done more with private doctors/therapists who may or may not even have a secretary. Then the third is paying the secretary after the visit. In basically all cases you won’t have any idea which is the correct thing to do, unless you’ve been there before or you ask. Some places also can’t accept credit/debit cards but the large majority do.

On your bill it may say “payment group: foreigner” or something of the sort. This means that since you haven’t stayed in Iceland for over six months, you don’t have the regular Icelandic health insurance and they’ll charge you a lot more. For example a blood test may cost $80 without this but $10 with it. Sometimes at the hospital they’ll automatically mark you as “foreign” just because you’re speaking English or have a foreign name, even if you’ve visited there before and they have medical records of it (this happened to me once) – so check your bill carefully so you can catch any mistakes.

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About the Author:sequoia

I try to write about two-thirds of the blog topics on cultural aspects and one-third on the language, because there's much more out there already on the language compared to daily life information. I try to stay away from touristy things because there's more of that out there than anything else on Iceland, and I feel like talking about that stuff gives you the wrong impression of Iceland.


  1. Wasuki:


    I found this article very informative. Recently Icelandic language caught my attention when i was google-ing about Various challenging foreign languages, hence leading to fascination about Iceland. It got strengthened by few american movies(Thor 1&2 , How to train a dragon) which touched Norse/Scandinavian mythology. The School that teaches about elves, the notions that exists among Natives(based on wikipedia reading), and the mysterious weather that keeps humans at check, makes me wonder what if Norse mythology is not a mythology but a legitimate body of knowledge and Iceland could be its doorway?? U never know. M an Indian medical graduate, with experience in psychiatry, who also holds a master degree in Indian Traditional medicine. I wanna pursue psychiatry residency in the US, but considering the option to work in Iceland. But recent budget cuts in iceland and the increased workload due to icelandic doctors migrating seems bit intimidating. But I have to say I’ve totally fallen in LOVE WITH ICELAND..!!! And this article of yours did give me unique perspective about Icelandic healthcare from the other side of the table.Thank you. I hope i did’t bore u with my elaborate ranting..!!