Understanding the Dutch healthcare system
The accessibility and affordability of Dutch healthcare is one of the things that makes the Netherlands a good place to live. But to fully benefit from the system, it’s important for internationals to understand how it works, and how it may differ from healthcare in other countries.
The Dutch government holds primary responsibility for the country’s healthcare system, which is based on three main principles:
- Everyone should have access to healthcare where possible.
- Medical insurance should be mutually and uniformly supportive of those insured.
- The services that the healthcare system provides should be of the highest quality.
General practitioners (huisartsen) are a fundamental element of the Dutch healthcare system, and the way they operate can come as a surprise to internationals. The philosophy underpinning general practice in the Netherlands is, broadly speaking, to take a conservative approach to medical intervention. To avoid the use of antibiotics, for instance, unless really needed. So a GP may advise someone who comes to see them with flu-like symptoms to rest, take paracetamol, drink plenty of fluids and come back after a week if they’re not feeling better. If an issue is more severe, the GP can prescribe medication, order more tests or refer you to a specialist.
People used to a more intensive approach may find the conservative attitude of Dutch primary healthcare givers rather unusual. But they are the basis of a healthcare system that performs consistently well internationally. The Netherlands ranks second, for instance, in a 2021 study that analysed healthcare in 11 high-income countries. Also in 2021, CEOWORLD Magazine’s Health Care Index rated the Netherlands as the 11th best healthcare system in the world. All Dutch GPs must first complete six years of general medical training and then undertake three years of specialised training in general practice.
Finding a doctor
Given their importance in the healthcare system, it’s well worth taking the time and effort to build a good relationship with your GP. In the Netherlands, patients are free to choose their own family doctor but not all practices will be willing to accept new patients. GPs must be able to reach your home address within 15 minutes in emergencies. Therefore, look at practices in your neighbourhood and enquire if they are taking new patients. It’s a good idea to register with a GP as soon as you are settled, even if you are healthy, to avoid any delays in the case of an emergency.
You are welcome to interview a doctor before signing up with their practice. This gives you a chance to get a sense of how well you can communicate with the practitioner and if their approach is likely to be a good fit with your needs. If the GP of your choice refuses to register you as a patient without a good reason, you can contact your health insurer or the advocacy organisation for health care clients (in Dutch) in your region. Find out more about GPs in the Netherlands.
A referral from a GP is always necessary to see a specialist (except for physiotherapists or midwives). This also applies to specialist mental health practitioners. When giving you a referral, your GP will usually recommend a specialist, although you are free to make the choice yourself. Factors influencing your options include your insurance coverage, waiting times and convenience of location.
Having found a doctor, be prepared to talk to them! The Dutch approach tends to be less hierarchical than in some other countries and you should feel free to ask questions about any advice you are given. Dutch GPs often expect their patients to take a measure of responsibility for their own health, so be prepared to be offered general lifestyle advice as well as specific medical care. A standard appointment with a GP is only 10 minutes, so if your issue is a complex one, ask for a double appointment to ensure you have enough time for a thorough consultation. If you are concerned that language may be a barrier, it can help to write your questions down in advance.
Watch our video for more information about accessing the Dutch healthcare system and understanding the role of your GP.
Visit the pages below for more detailed information on various aspects of healthcare in the Netherlands.