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

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Navigating the Australian medical system if you fall ill

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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 should you take with you when you visit the doctor?

In Australia, we’re looked after by a health system that has two parts. The public part, run through the state and federal governments is paid for by taxes. The private, or non-government part of the health system, is made up of private hospitals, health insurance companies and private practitioners like general practitioners (GPs), specialists, allied health workers and dentists.

Related: Public vs private

Although our health system might have many similarities with your country of origin, it’s very likely there will be differences.

We’ve answered some of the biggest questions you might have, so the next time you feel ill, you can spend less time worrying about what to do and more time getting back to full health.

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

In Australia, there are a range of over-the-counter non-prescription medicines that you can purchase from your local pharmacy or even a supermarket to help with mild conditions.

However, because of COVID-19, it’s important that if you experience any of the below symptoms that you visit a nearby COVID-19 testing location:

  • Fever

  • Tiredness

  • Dry cough

  • Aches and pains

  • Runny nose or nasal congestion

  • Sore throat

  • Diarrhoea

  • Difficulty breathing

For more information on COVID-19, check out our article, What is COVID-19 and how can I protect myself?

When should I see a doctor?

Once your COVID-19 test comes back negative, if you continue to feel unwell, but you don’t think it’s serious enough to be admitted to hospital, you should call a doctor (also referred to in Australia as a general practitioner or GP) to discuss your options. A GP consultation will usually take place in a private clinic instead of a hospital and lasts around 10-15 minutes – but can take longer depending on the 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, the GP may provide you with a script to buy prescription medicine that is only available at a pharmacy (also known as a chemist). To check if your nib policy provides a benefit for prescription medicine, download the nib App to view your policy inclusions.

To find a GP close to you, search nib’s Find a Provider network.

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When should I see a specialist?

If you find that your health issues have persisted or worsened, your GP may advise you to see a specialist for further treatment. In Australia, to see a specialist, your GP will write a referral letter for you. This referral letter may include contact details of a specialist they have worked with or recommend, but it’s important to remember that you can choose to go to any specialist so long as they’re in the same specialty field.

Related: Can I take my referral to any specialist?

Once you receive your referral, you’ll be able to book an appointment with your chosen specialist who may perform further tests before they diagnose and recommend a treatment plan.

To answer your biggest questions when it comes to referrals, check out our article: How long does a referral last?

When should I call ‘000’?

In Australia, the emergency number to call is ‘000’ and this is available 24/7, free of charge. However, you should only call ‘000’ if you have a major injury or life-threatening illness, for example, chest pains, difficulty breathing or severe blood loss. For a more in-depth guide on when to call ‘000’, visit the Australian Government’s healthdirect page.

If you require an ambulance, be sure to tell the operator as soon as possible after calling ‘000’. Don't worry about language barriers, translation support is available if needed.

When you call ‘000’, you’ll likely be asked the following questions:

  • What is your current location?

  • What emergency did you encounter?

  • How many people encountered this situation with you?

The waiting time for you to see the doctor will depend on how urgent your health issue is

Similar to many countries, a ride in an ambulance is not free for visitors to Australia. Fortunately, all of nib’s International Visitors and Student health insurance policies include cover for the cost of emergency ambulance transport within Australia1.

Taking an ambulance to the hospital doesn’t necessarily mean that you can see a doctor or be admitted to hospital immediately. Emergency services in Australia do not follow the principle of first-come, first-served. Instead, the waiting time for you to see the doctor will depend on how urgent your health issue is compared to other patients currently waiting for treatment; it won’t be based on when you started queueing. If you are very sick, you will generally be seen quickly.

You can also attend any hospital emergency room (ER) without being transported by ambulance. This could be for care that a GP may not be able to help with, such as a fractured wrist or wound management.

You can choose to attend the nearest ER, regardless of whether it’s a private or public hospital, although the waiting times are generally less in a private hospital2. When you attend the ER, it’s likely you’ll be seen initially by a nurse who will do an assessment of your condition and then you’ll wait for further care.

If you know that you’ll need to visit an Australian hospital for treatment, it’s important to let nib know so we can help guide you through your journey. For more information, check out our article, Going to hospital? Here’s why you should contact nib first.

Thinking about making the move to Australia? Get health cover that meets your visa requirements in less than five minutes. Learn more about our international student cover at OSHC.

Are you going to be working while in Australia? Find out more about our working visitor cover options.

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 Overseas Workers Health Cover products that do not cover outpatient services 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.

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