‘Being sick abroad can be daunting and confusing’

In this week's edition of My Spanish Career, The Local talks to experienced Ohio doctor Mary McCarthy about how she built a medical career in Barcelona and what expats need to know when dealing with Spain's health system.

'Being sick abroad can be daunting and confusing'
"Call your consulate for a list of English-speaking doctors if you don't speak Spanish," Dr. Mary McCarthy recommends. Photo: Mary McCarthy & Cesar Rangel/AFP

Can you tell us about yourself and how you ended up moving to Spain?

I obtained my medical degree and all specialty training in the United States, where I'm originally from.

I met my husband, a Catalan, when I was a medical student on a fellowship in a hospital in Nigeria.

After completing half of my specialty training in the US, I married and came to Barcelona.

Later I finished the specialty training in the USA and took the Intenal Medicine Board exam to qualify as a specialist in Internal Medicine.

How did you go about finding a job?

I didn't speak a word of Spanish when I first came to Barcelona so I had to complete an intensive course and aim for complete immersion before I could apply for jobs.

Learning medical terminology was a key part of my language acquisition too.

Then there was having to get all my medical qualifications recognized.

What did you have to do to gain the right to practise medicine in Spain?

I had to take an exam in order to have my medical schooldiploma recognized and another exam to be qualified as a specialist in Internal Medicine.

Hospitals in Spain usually prefer you to have the MIR, the exam needed to become a specialist.

I began work at an HMO (Health Maintenance Organization), known as a Mutua in Spanish.

I worked there for 20 years before focussing fully on my ambulatory private practice.

I’ve been able to work successfully as a non-MIR specialist.

Do all your patients come to you because you speak English?

I have a mix of local and foreign patients.

Language is undeniably a key reason why people come to see me, but over the years I've built a rapport with plenty of Spanish patients too.

What do like most and least about working in Spain?

What I like most is the variety of patients from many different countries I get.

What I like least is the lack of follow-ups; not knowing how a case turned out.

Do foreigners have any complaints about Spanish doctors?

I think if they do it's probably down to the communication barrier.

Being sick in a foreign country can be a very daunting and confusing experience.

Whenever I refer a patient to a specialist or prescribe medicine, I let doctors and chemists know that they don't speak Spanish.

Trained medical translators can avoid any confusion, protect the intimacy of the patient and save relatives and friends the problems of translation.

Do you have any tips for English-speaking foreigners who fall ill in Spain and don't speak the language properly?

Call your consulate for a list of English-speaking doctors.

Medicines in Spain are pre-packaged and the information slip is usually only in Spanish.

I advise people to keep the box that contained the medication or take note of the active ingredients in the medicines as well as the commercial name of the product to inform the doctor of the medication prescribed.

Also, if seen in an emergency room or admitted to a hospital, ask for a report of your case when you leave the emergency room or the hospital.

What is the main difference between the way medicine is carried out in Spain and the US?

Many patients will go directly to a specialist for a condition that the family doctor may deal with in the States.

Also, private patients will very often go directly to a specialist rather than waiting for a referral.

The public system will refer a patient as necessary.

What advice would you give a medical professional thinking of coming to work in Spain?

Learn the language.

Make sure you contact the local provincial School of Doctors, or Colegio de Medicos, before making your decision.

You will be informed of the necessary steps to have your diploma recognized.

It’s a hard time to find work in most fields at this stage in Spain, so they can advise you if there are places with large English-speaking expat communities are the best bet.

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