An introduction to the Swedish healthcare system

7 October 2019

Sweden’s integrated healthcare system has a lot to offer, with some of the highest survival rates in Europe. The government invests 11% of GDP into the system (the third highest in the EU) which helps explain Sweden’s high life expectancy and general standards of wellbeing1. But how does it work for expats? And what should you be aware of before moving out there?

Family moving boxes into a new home

We’ll be by your side

With AXA’s global health cover, you’ll know that you and your family’s health is protected, wherever you are, whenever you need us.

Get a quote online
Find out more

Registering for healthcare in Sweden

Healthcare is regulated by the central government, and implemented by local county councils. This means that different counties have slightly different systems and rules. So as an expat, it’s good to know how to access your local services, in case you need to. 

To register with a local doctor, you’ll need to visit your local health centre or ‘vårdcentraler’. You can choose any centre you like, it just needs to be within your county. However, many centres have a waiting list just to register, and are only open on weekdays between 8am, and 5pm (centres in some counties have longer opening hours). Therefore once you’ve got a residence permit, it’s worth registering with your chosen ‘vårdcentraler’ as early as you can. But if you need medical treatment before you get your premit and want to avoid paying full price, you’ll either need an EHIC card (for EU residents) or private medical insurance to cover the costs.

Seeing a specialist

If you need to see a specialist in Sweden, your doctor will write a referral summarising your medical history, and your current symptoms. Until you’re seen by the most relevant person, your doctor is still responsible for your care. Swedish law states that you’ll see a specialist within 90 days of your referral, but in reality, about 1 in 3 people actually wait longer. The waiting time for these appointments is one of the biggest challenges faced by the Swedish healthcare system, along with accessing public healthcare2.

Through the public system, treatment is often subsidised, so there are still small fees to pay (if you’re under 16 you won’t have to pay these). For example, seeing specialist can cost you approximately 400 SEK3

Emergency numbers in Sweden

Emergency healthcare is available to everyone in the country, whether you’re a resident or a tourist. You don’t need proof of insurance to be treated, but they’ll ask if you’re insured after your treatment, so you could be left with a big bill if not. Some counties also charge a fee for ambulance or helicopter transport on top of the treatment itself. The service is available 24/7, and the patients with the most urgent problems will be seen first. No matter which county you’re in, here are the two important numbers to remember:

  • 112 – Whether you need the police, an ambulance or a fire engine, they’ll connect you to the service you need, in either Swedish or English
  • 1177 – This number is part of the countrywide telephone and online health advice service. The nurses on this phone line can provide advice and information about healthcare in different counties. 

Prescriptions in Sweden

If you need a prescription, you’ll have to see a doctor first. The prescription will then be sent electronically (or on paper, in some areas) to a pharmacy or ‘apotek’, where you’ll need to show your ID to pick it up. Through the public system, you’ll have to pay for your prescriptions, until you’ve spent SEK 2,300 in a year. The county council will then cover the rest (restricted to medicines covered by the scheme) until the next year starts4.

Technology & E-Healthcare in Sweden⁶

Sweden is seen by many as one of the leading countries for e-Healthcare and innovation, investing SEK 11.5 billion7 into healthcare technology each year. So are there any surprises for expats who are new to the system?

  • The 1177.se website and telephone service has been around for approximately 10 years, and provides an online or telephone health advice service. It was the first of its kind in the world. You can use the service for any health-related questions.
  • In 2010, the National Patient Overview service was launched. This aims to allow all patients to view their medical records online. Each county can choose which system to use, and getting all records online is still in progress.
  • 95% of prescriptions across all counties are now electronically transferred.
  • 100% of all primary care records are electronic.

So if you’re moving to Sweden, you can have confidence in the quality and efficiency of the healthcare available. However, it’s worth noting this investment and introduction of new services, may be affecting the waiting times and access to healthcare on the public system. The private system is benefitting from these pressures, with an increase in patients.

Seeing the dentist

Dental care in Sweden is fairly expensive for adults, in comparison to a lot of other countries, especially in the EU. This is mainly because it gets fewer government subsidies than other forms of healthcare. Most of these subsidies are spent on dental care for children – as basic treatments are completely free (you can check the maximum age for this, with your local county healthcare service). For this reason, many expats will take out private health insurance which covers adult dental treatment. The quality of treatment is usually high, and most practices will have some English-speaking staff. If Swedish isn’t your first language, it’s a good idea to let them know before you go. Also, as a general rule, there’s not much flexibility if you turn up even a few minutes late. 

Some dental treatments fall under the high cost protection scheme, where the maximum you need to pay is capped. However, the cap on costs is often higher than it is for other medical treatments. There’s also the possibility to receive a grant of 150-300 SEK per year8 – but you’ll need to see a dentist who is affiliated by the Swedish Social Insurance Agency to receive this.

 You can find a dentist online, or by phoning 1177, the Swedish health advice line. Booking the appointment can then be done over the phone with your chosen practice. 

Private health insurance in Sweden

Problems with accessing healthcare and long waiting lists mean that the number of people with private health insurance in Sweden rose by 50% between 2010 and 2015. Today, about 40% of primary care practices are privately owned⁵. Other than to reduce waiting times, private healthcare firms have been entering the market to bring competition back to the healthcare system. The number of private practices varies from county to county. 

Don’t be surprised if…

  • The healthcare system seems completely different when you visit another county
  • You have to wait longer than the Swedish law suggests to see a specialist on the public system2
  • You see more electronic systems and innovative technologies than you’re used to
  • The hospitals are particularly large in size, to try and keep up with a high demand for hospital beds

1https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Healthcare_expenditure_statistics

2https://www.thelocal.se/20180903/swedes-enjoy-world-class-healthcare-but-long-queues-frustrate-voters

3https://transferwise.com/gb/blog/healthcare-system-in-sweden           

4https://www.apoteket.se/other-languages/how-to-buy-prescription-medicines-and-other-prescription-products/

5https://international.commonwealthfund.org/countries/sweden/

6E-Healthcare figures taken from: https://www.gemalto.com/review/Pages/digital-sweden-then-and-now-healthcare.aspx

7Currencies correct as of Aug 2019: https://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/convert

8https://www.thenewbieguide.se/health/dental-care/