Health Emergencies in France

France’s emergency medical services are among the best in the world but may operate in a slightly different way from those you’re used to.  The action to take in a medical emergency depends on the degree of urgency. 

In a life-threatening emergency, such as a heart attack, poisoning or serious accident, dial 15 for our nearest Service d’Aide Médicale d’Urgence (SAMU) unit.  SAMU is a special emergency service that works closely with local public hospital emergency and intensive care units.  Its ambulances are manned by medical personnel and equipped with resuscitation equipment.  SAMU has a central telephone number for each region and the duty doctor decides whether to send a SAMU mobile unit, refer the call to another ambulance service, or call a doctor for a home visit.  In the most critical situations, SAMU  can arrange transport to hospital by airplane, helicopter, or, if appropriate, boat.  If you call the fire brigade or police services, they will request a SAMU unit if they consider it necessary.
You can also call the local fire brigade (sapeurs-pompiers or pompiers) in an emergency by dialing 18.  The fire brigade and public ambulance services are combined, and the fire brigade is equipped to deal with accidents and emergency medical cases.  It operates its own ambulances, which are equipped with resuscitation equipment, and the pompiers will arrive wit ha doctor.

If you need an ambulance but the emergency isn’t life-threatening, call the local public assistance (assistance-publique) or municipal ambulance (ambulance municipale) service.  There are also private ambulances in most towns providing a 24-hour service, listed by town under Ambulances in yellow pages.  Ambulance staff are trained to provide the first-aid and oxygen.  In an emergency an ambulance will take a patient to the nearest hospital equipped to deal with that type of emergency. IN small towns the local taxi service also provides an ‘ambulance’ service.

You will be billed for the services of SAMU, the fire service or the public ambulance service, although the cost will be reimbursed by social security and your complementary insurance policy, if you have one, in the same way as other medical costs.  In an emergency, any hospital must treat you, irrespective of your ability to pay.

There are 24-hour medical and dental services in major cities and large towns (numbers are listed in telephone directories).  For example, in Paris, you can call SOS Médécins (01 47 07 77 77) for medical emergencies, and SOS Dentaire (01 43 37 51 00) for dental emergencies.  Contact numbers for SOS Médécins in other parts of France can be found on  SOS doctors and dentists are equipped with radio cars and respond quickly to calls.  A home visit in Paris costs from around E32 before 19.00 and E48 after 19.00, plus the cost of any treatment.  In Paris and other main cities, there are emergency medical telephone boxes at major junctions marked ‘Services Médicaux’, with direct lines to emergency services.

If someone has swallowed poison, the number of your local poison control centre (centre anti-poison) is listed at the front of telephone directories.  The morning-after pill (contraception d’urgence) can be purchased without a prescription from chemists’.

If you’re unsure who to call, telephone your local police, who will tell you who to contact or call the appropriate service for you.  Whoever you call, give the age of the patient and if possible, specify the type of emergency.

Keep a record of the telephone numbers of your doctor, local hospitals and clinics,  ambulance service, poison control, dentist and other emergency services (e.g. fire, police) next to your telephone.

If you’re able, you can go to a hospital emergency or casualty department (urgences).  Note that not all hospitals have pediatric units, particularly private hospitals and, if your child needs emergency treatment, you should take him to a hospital catering for pediatric emergencies.

Check in advance which local hospitals are equipped to deal with emergencies and the quickest route from your home.  This information may be of vital importance in the event of an emergency, when a delay could mean the difference between life and death.

Excerpted from “Living and Working in France” It can be purchased from Survival Books