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Hospitals and health-care in Ghent (part 1)

It must have been the cheese platter that was causing the terrible pain in my sister’s stomach. At least, that’s what we thought. She was attending a conference in Cologne, so we met up with her and her husband for the weekend, but she couldn’t get out of bed the morning after eating the cheese. When we asked about her level of pain, she replied, ‘About a 3 out of 10.’ (Side note: my sister is a midwife, so she compares everything to the pain of child-birth.)

At the clinic, the doctor said that her appendix was about to burst and it needed to be removed as soon as possible.

We decided that it would be best to have the surgery in Ghent so that her husband could stay with us and she could recover at our house. We hopped in the car and drove as fast as we could. On the way, my wife called ahead to several of the local hospitals. Three of them couldn’t say if a doctor would be available. AZ Jan Palfijn replied, “Call us when you’re approaching Ghent. We’ll be ready for her.”

We parked near the entrance to the Spoeddienst (Emergency Room; for Brits = A&E). While we were completing the paperwork, a doctor approached us carrying a leather satchel like something from the 1950’s. She said, “I’ll see you in the operating room shortly.”

Within the hour, the surgery had started and a few hours later my sister was recovering in a hospital room. Whew!

The lesson of the story is – don’t wait until there’s an emergency to get to know the hospital and health-care services in Ghent.

Part One of this series will look at what you can expect during a stay in hospital.

Part Two will look at each of the local hospitals, their similarities and differences.

Language & culture – My sister was pleased to discover that her doctor spoke excellent English. The nurses and other staff were another matter. Their English wasn’t very good and they refused to explain about the medications they were giving her, even though she is a trained medical professional. Health-care providers in Flanders typically don’t provide much information unless asked directly, which means it is essential to keep asking questions for yourself or your loved ones. Also, it is within your rights to seek a second opinion from another doctor. Don’t go ahead with a treatment if you don’t understand or agree with it.

My sister was shocked by the low doses of pain-killers she received after the operation. She was in a lot of pain and kept asking for something stronger. Based on her experience in Canada, a patient would not be expected to endure this much pain. At the same time, there is currently a huge opioid crisis in North America where millions of people have become addicted to drugs they were given for a medical procedure. Looking back on it now, my sister is glad that she was given such low doses and weaker medications.

Food & lodging – Hospital food is never going to be gourmet, but here it is typically bread, bread, and more bread. My sister was hoping for some frieten, but no such luck. Lunch is normally the hot meal of the day, while the evening meal is cold. My brother-in-law was thrilled to learn that Belgian beers could be ordered with your meal. People from other cultures might not be used to eating so much bread. Or, they might normally eat 3 warm meals each day. If this is true for you, simply ask the doctors and nurses if you are allowed to bring some food from home. There is usually a microwave nearby to reheat it. Just be sure to ask.

It is usual to have to share a hospital room with at least 1 other person, sometimes more. A private room will also cost more. Curtains between the beds provide some privacy. Depending on your condition, you may be allowed to visit other parts of the hospital, such as the cafeteria, the chapel or go for a walk outside. Each hospital is different.

Visiting Hours – In Canada, I was used to being able to visit people in hospitals for my work any time between 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. Of course, this was always with the understanding that if something needed to be done with the patient, I would need to go somewhere else. However, in Ghent, all of the hospitals have very restricted visiting hours, usually from 2:00 until 8:00 p.m., which really frustrated my brother-in-law. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no exceptions.

Insurance & money – Who pays? Residents of Belgium are required to have health insurance, which usually covers most of the costs. For those travelling to Belgium, it will depend upon your travel insurance, or your country of residence. In the case of my sister, her husband was expected to pay the surgical bill just a few hours after the operation. Luckily, they were able to cover it on their credit card. Afterwards, there was a lot of paperwork to prove that she hadn’t come to Belgium for ‘medical tourism’. The last bills arrived once they were back in Canada, which could have involved making international transfer and currency exchange. Don’t imagine that you can avoid paying the medical bills just because you live outside of Belgium. They will always find you!

What have your experiences been with the hospitals in Ghent? Do you have any horror stories? Or did you have a great experience at one of the local hospitals? Any tips or questions about health-care in Ghent?Please leave a comment below.

My advice: don’t order the cheese platter.

Stephen fell in love with Gent in 2009 and moved here from Canada in 2011. The love affair with the city continues to grow. He likes learning languages and new experiences and boring friends and family with random historical facts about Gent. He usually tweets about his favourite baseball team that he follows from afar @stephemurray.

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Guest authors are expats and Gentenaars who enjoy spreading the word about Gent to the world. If you'd like to join us, contact us at

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