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What do I do if I get sick while I’m in Australia?

Getting sick is part of life. However, falling ill while you’re studying overseas can be scary, especially if you’re not sure where to go for support.

A young woman rests hand on her mouth as she plays on her phone
A young woman rests hand on her mouth as she plays on her phone

As an international student or worker living in Australia, the thought of falling ill can be daunting. Who do you call? Should you be worried about bills or payments? What to you need to take with you when you visit the doctor?

Although Australia’s health system may be like the one in your country, it’s likely there will be some differences. Australia’s health system is made up of two parts, public and private.

The public health sector is run by the state and federal government and is funded through taxes. On the other hand, the private health system consists of privately run hospitals, insurance companies and providers, including general practitioners (GPs), specialists, allied health workers and dentists. 

To help you get the care you need when you need it, we’ve put together this handy guide on accessing the Australian healthcare system. Read on to find out what to do when you’re sick in Australia.  

Why you should use nib Symptom Checker first?

When you are feeling unwell, you can try our new App tool: the nib Symptom Checker*. It uses smart technology made by doctors to help you with health problems. You just put in your symptoms and do a quick health check for free. It's private and fast. Depending on your answers, we'll suggest if you can manage at home, need to talk to a doctor online or in person, or if it's urgent to go to the hospital.

This tool is now in English and simplified Chinese for nib International Visitors members.

Where do I go if I have a mild health concern?

For some injuries and illnesses, you may not have to see a doctor at all. Minor health concerns include: 

  • Coughs 

  • Cold or flu 

  • Hay fever and allergies 

  • Indigestion and heartburn 

  • Sports injuries, such as strains and sprains 

  • Sunburn 

  • Insect bites and stings 

  • Cold sores 

In Australia, you can access several over-the-counter medications to help with mild health issues. These can be bought from your local pharmacy, sometimes called a chemist, or even a supermarket. 

Pharmacists can also help you by providing advice on treatment options and can answer any questions you have about medications and over-the-counter drugs. 

When should I see a doctor?

If you feel unwell but don’t need to go to the hospital, you should get in touch with a doctor. In Australia, doctors are sometimes called general practitioners (GPs).  

You can make an appointment to see a GP (General Practice) in person at a private clinic. nib’s find a provider tool search tool is a wonderful way to find a GP in your local area.  

Alternatively, you might prefer to make a book your telehealth appointment online. Telehealth appointments allow you to speak to a GP by phone or video chat, which means you won’t have to leave home to receive the care you need. You can even book telehealth appointments easily from the nib App.   

A standard consultation will usually take between 10 and 15 minutes but could take longer, depending on your health issue.  

GPs play an important role in Australia's medical system. Typical services provided by a GP include:

  • Diagnosing and treating diseases, pain and other conditions

  • Vaccinations

  • Advice on mental health

  • Advice on family planning

  • Wound care

  • Prescribing medication

  • Writing referrals for tests or scans

  • Referring you to specialists

To treat your illness, your GP may provide you with a script to buy prescription medicine only available from a pharmacy. You can check whether your policy includes a benefit for prescription medicine on the nib App. 

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When should I see a specialist?

If your health concerns require further treatment, your GP may refer you to a specialist. A specialist is a medical doctor with expertise in a particular area, such as a dermatologist, psychiatrist or surgeon.  

To see a specialist in Australia, your GP will need to write you a referral letter. This may include the details of a particular practitioner they recommend, but you can take your referral to any specialist so long as they are in the same specialty field.  

Once you have a referral from your GP, you’ll be able to book an appointment with your chosen specialist. The specialist may perform further tests before giving you a diagnosis and recommending a treatment plan. You can find out more about referrals and specialists on nib’s The Check Up

When should I call ‘000’?

If you need immediate care in Australia, you should call the emergency number ‘000’ at once. Calls to ‘000’ are free and available 24/7, and translation support is available as well. 

Remember that you should only call this number in an emergency, such as a major injury or life-threatening illness. For example, you might call ‘000’ if you or someone you’re with has:  

  • Chest tightness or pain 

  • Weakness, numbness or paralysis 

  • Difficulty breathing 

  • Loss of consciousness 

  • Heavy or uncontrollable bleeding 

  • Severe bodily injuries, such as from a fall or motor vehicle crash 

  • Seizures 

  • Serious burns or scalds 

When you call ‘000’, be sure to let the operator know as soon as possible if you need an ambulance. The operator will ask you questions about the emergency, such as: 

  • Where you are located 

  • The incident, injury or illness that occurred 

  • How many people are injured or unwell 

Be aware that ambulance rides in Australia are not free for international visitors. Fortunately, all of nib’s policies for overseas visitors and students cover ambulance transport within Australia, so you have one less thing to worry about in an emergency.  

If you need urgent assistance but don’t require an ambulance, you can also take yourself to the nearest hospital emergency department (ED). Both public and private hospitals have EDs (Emergency Department), but the waiting times are generally shorter at private hospitals.  

Going to the ED doesn’t necessarily mean you will see a doctor straight away, and you’ll be assessed by a nurse when you arrive. EDs in Australia use a triage system, where patients with the most urgent conditions are prioritised. For example, a patient experiencing a heart attack will be treated first, even if a patient with a broken wrist had arrived at the hospital earlier.  

If you need to visit a hospital while you’re in Australia, it’s important to Going to hospital? Here's why you should contact nib first. before you go so we can guide you through your healthcare journey.  

Thinking about making the move to Australia? nib makes getting health insurance easy, so you can get on with enjoying your stay. Check out our range of insurance options for international students and working visitors and get visa-approved coverage in as little as five minutes.

1 For further information regarding cover for Ambulance Benefits, please refer to the Overseas Workers Health Cover Fund Rules and the Overseas Students Health Cover Fund Rules.

2 Members on an Advantage Visitor Cover product will be covered for Emergency Room (ER) visits. Members on any other nib Visitors products will only be covered for ER visits where they are formally admitted to Hospital as an Admitted Patient, as a result of their ER visit. Please refer to the Overseas Workers Health Cover Fund Rules.

*nib Symptom Checker does not provide a medical diagnosis and should not replace the judgment of a registered healthcare practitioner. It offers information to assist you in decision making based on readily available information about symptoms. If you have questions or concerns about the results from nib Symptom Checker, please consult your registered healthcare practitioner.