You may have heard that France has universal healthcare, but there are some other things about healthcare in France that might surprise you.
One of those is how to say “doctor” in French! Starting with that very important point, let’s talk about doctors and healthcare in France.
How do you say “doctor” in French?
There are three common ways to say “doctor” in French:
These refer to a medical doctor, not someone with a doctorate (advanced) degree. We’ll talk about the word for that type of doctor a bit further on.
For now, let’s ‘examine’ each French word for medical doctor more closely!
Use médecin when talking about a doctor without their name and without addressing them directly. For example: Je suis malade, je vais chez le médecin. (I’m sick, I’m going to the doctor’s.)
Here are a few important things to keep in mind about the word médecin:
- Médecin is a false cognate (faux ami). So how do you say “medicine” in French? That would be un médicament if you’re referring to pills or other treatments. If you’re talking about the study of medicine/the medical field, that’s la médecine.
- In French spoken in France, médecin is always masculine.
About 44.3% of doctors in France are female, but unlike many job titles in French, médecin remains a masculine noun even if you’re talking about a female doctor.
This isn’t the case in all Francophone countries. For example, in Canadian French, you would say une médecin or une docteure for a female doctor. The word doctoresse is used in Swiss and Belgian French. You could say it’s sexist to keep médecin, a historically male job, as an exclusively masculine noun. But on the other hand, you could also argue that giving job titles different forms according to the gender of the person performing them is sexist. You can read a bit more about gendered nouns and the gender equality movement here.
- Médecin can be used without an article.
Remember that when you talk about what someone does in French, you don’t use an article. So, while you’d say “Cecilia is a doctor” in English, you’d say Cecilia est médecin in French.
- Médecin means “doctor” but it’s not a job title.
You don’t use médecin when referring to a doctor by name or when addressing a doctor directly. A doctor’s title is Docteur, abbreviated Dr.
So, you would say: Il a pris rendez-vous avec le meilleur médecin de la ville. (He made an appointment with the best doctor in the city.) But if you want to specifically name the best doctor in the city, you’d have to switch to docteur: Le docteur Durand est le meilleur médecin de la ville. (Dr. Durand is the best doctor in the city.)
When talking about a particular person who is a doctor, or when speaking to them directly, you use their title, which is docteur (abbreviated Dr.) in French.
For example, Le docteur Dupont est mon fils (Dr. Dupont is my son.) or J’ai rendez-vous avec le docteur Dupont (I have an appointment with Dr. Dupont.)
Note that unless you’re directly addressing the doctor, you always include the article le (the), even though you’d just say “doctor” in English.
So for instance, you could say, J’ai rendez-vous avec le docteur Dupont. (I have an appointment with Dr. Dupont.). But if you’re talking to Dr. Dupont, you don’t need the article: Bonjour, Dr. Dupont.
Note that if we already know the doctor’s name, or if it’s implied in some other way that the specific doctor is known, you could use docteur without the name. For example, L’infirmière m’a dit que le docteur est très sympathique. (The nurse told me that the doctor is very nice.)
As with médecin, docteur is a masculine noun, even if the doctor in question is female, so use le docteur even when talking about a woman. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is the case in France but not in many other Francophone countries.
Note that while they aren’t referred to as médecins, people in other medical professions, including dentists (dentistes) and veterinarians (vétérinaires) also have the title of docteur.
Toubib is an informal or slang term for “doctor” in French.
There are a few other French slang terms for doctor, like doc and médic, but personally, I’ve only seen those two in dictionaries. Toubib, on the other hand, is everywhere, from movie and (translated) TV show titles, to everyday language.
A lot of French slang is derived from standard French words, but you’ve probably noticed that toubib doesn’t seem to have any etymological connection with médecin or docteur. There’s a reason for that: It’s actually borrowed from the Arabic word for “doctor”, tbib. During the period of French colonization in Algeria (ca. 1830-1962), French soldiers and colonists took a liking to the word, which eventually made its way to mainland France as well.
Unlike médecin and docteur, toubib can be used with a masculine or feminine article: un toubib/une toubib.
Note that you don’t have to add an “e” to the end when you use it with a feminine article. Aside from that, toubib follows all the other typical French grammar rules (take out the article when referring to it as someone’s profession, add an “s” when making it plural, etc.).
Toubib is an informal word, although it’s certainly not vulgar. But like a term like “doc” in English, you probably shouldn’t use it in formal, professional, or academic settings, or when addressing a doctor.
Here are some examples of how to use toubib:
Tu devrais parler avec ma sœur, elle est toubib. (You should talk to my sister, she’s a doctor.)
Jean est allé voir le toubib. (Jean went to see the doctor.)
Tu connais un bon toubib dans ce quartier ? (Do you know a good doctor in this neighborhood?)
How to say “doctor” in French when referring to a holder of a doctorate
As in many other cultures, people who hold a Doctor of Philosophy or any equivalent degree are referred to as docteur in French.
Just like the way it’s used to talk about a medical doctor, in French spoken in France, this title is always masculine regardless of whether the person is male or female.
You can use docteur, meaning a holder of a Doctor of Philosophy, in two ways:
1. To refer to a specific person with this title: Le docteur Gaillard est connu pour ses recherches dans le domaine de l’écologie. Dr. Gaillard is known for his ecology-related research.
2. To refer to a person’s title/specialty: Eloise est docteur en littérature francaise. (Eloise has a doctorate in French literature.)
Although you use an article when talking about a doctor, when you address them directly, you just say Docteur (abbreviated as Dr. in written French). For example: C’est un vrai plaisir de vous rencontrer, Dr. Perrin. J’ai trouvé votre dernier livre passionnant. (It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Perrin. I found your latest book absolutely fascinating.)
How do you talk about medical specialists in France?
Here’s what some common types of medical specialists are called in France.
Note that some of these words have a shortened form that people often use in everyday language. While not disrespectful, these are informal and shouldn’t be used when you talk to the actual specialist, or in formal/academic settings.
Another thing to note: As you’ll see even from this short list, many medical specializations can be masculine or feminine, or even have a separate masculine and feminine form.
un/une kinésithérapeute – physical therapist/physiotherapist. You’ll often hear this shortened in everyday language as un/une kiné.
un/une dermatologue – dermatologist. You’ll often hear this shortened in everyday language as un/une dermato.
un/une psychiatre -psychiatrist. You’ll often hear this shortened in everyday language as un/une psy.
As in English, all of these medical professionals have the title docteur.
How does the French healthcare system work?
Although many other countries have state-provided, “socialized medicine”, in my personal experience, France seems one of the biggest targets for people who are (inexplicably, to me) against universal healthcare.
In reality, the French healthcare system is currently ranked as the best in the world.
And as someone who lives in France, I get it.
Many detractors of universal healthcare seem to think that it means medical professionals don’t have to study for as long or have as many qualifications. But in France, doctors in all fields of medicine are highly trained. It takes up to twelve years of medical school in France to become a doctor, depending on specialization. You can read more details about French medical school here and here.
Another idée reçue is that countries with socialized medicine lack doctors. This is because less people feel the incentive to study medicine, since it doesn’t pay as well as it does in countries like the US. This could be a problem in other countries, but not so in France. Despite long studies and not being paid astronomical salaries, there are about 32 medical doctors per 1,000 French people. The rate in the US is lower, with about 26 per 1,000 people.
Statistics aside, as someone who’s used the French healthcare system for more than a decade, I’ve almost never had a problem getting an appointment with a GP, even sometimes a last-minute, same-day one. It helps that you can choose to go to any doctor you want; there are no requirements tied to insurance, although you have to declare a médecin traitant (regular doctor) and will be reimbursed more if you have a medical visit with him or her, rather than another one. When it comes to specialists, there can be longer waits, but that’s not always the case, either.
Prenatal care in France is also impressive, with no costs for excellent public hospital care. I had monthly hospital visits, special sonograms because of an at-risk pregnancy, tests, and even prenatal sessions with a midwife (standard in France) completely cost-free. It also cost me nothing to receive an epidural, deliver my baby in a hospital, and stay in the hospital for three days. This three-day stay is standard in France. The only thing you have to pay for is a small fee to use the TV in your room, if you want to!
As for other non-GP care, most of it is at least partially reimbursed by social security, especially if you get a referral from your GP. Speaking of reimbursement, you generally pay a small upfront fee for care – for instance, a visit to your GP, will cost about 25 euros as of this writing, and slightly higher for pediatric visits. National healthcare will reimburse a vast majority of that. If you also have an optional private insurance policy (une mutuelle), sometimes you will end up being reimbursed 100% for doctor’s visits and medication. Even if you don’t, the costs are very low – although French people are so used to being reimbursed that they’ll probably tell you it’s expensive to see a GP if you don’t have French or European health insurance!
Speaking of that, one of the many things I love about the French healthcare system is that if you’re not French, a holder of a titre de séjour (green card) , or an EU member, you may not get reimbursed for care, but you also aren’t paying astronomical sums of money.
Another admirable thing about the French healthcare system is that health is approached in a collective way. Everyone has a right to medical treatment here. If you can’t afford medical care, all costs will be covered for you.
That said, yes, I do have to pay taxes that go towards funding all of this, but it’s not so bad, especially when you consider that many people in the US will have to pay out-of-pocket for at least some healthcare costs or deductibles.
The French healthcare system is also dealing with some budgetary problems and their repercussions: strikes (although it’s forbidden to completely deny or shut down access to healthcare, even when doctors and staff are striking).
But overall, it’s worth it – and I’m not alone in thinking that; as this article mentions, regardless of political leanings, and despite the French tendency to complain about just about anything, universal healthcare is something an overwhelming majority of French people appreciate. I always laugh at how some of the Americans I know are horrified by the idea of universal healthcare, and how the French are horrified by not having it.
If you want a more detailed look at the French healthcare system, this article has a lot of excellent information.
The dirty secret of the French healthcare system
The French healthcare system is considered the best in the world, but nothing’s perfect.
For example, as I mentioned, many healthcare workers are on strike or have gone/will go on strike because of the effects of budget cuts, as well as other issues.
But for an American like me, the most obvious downside of the French healthcare system is one you might not expect.
France has excellent healthcare, but because it’s low-cost or even free, it’s also no-frills, even to the point of being a bit shocking sometimes.
While operating rooms and other places that need to be sterile and state-of-the-art look similar to what most Americans expect, most public spaces in French hospitals are shabby, even dirty.
For instance, we’ve taken my son to the emergency room at l’hôpital Robert Debré, a renowned French children’s hospital. The staff was great and everything necessary for taking care of my son was there, but the waiting room was dingy and hadn’t been cleaned in a while. Crumbs from kids’ snacks littered the floor. A puddle of some unidentified liquid was pooled in a corner.
Even creature comforts you might find in some American pediatric ER’s weren’t present. The only chairs were hard, uncomfortable wooden ones. There weren’t any toys. The walls were dingy white, with a few stickers or small posters as the only decoration. A single, tiny TV hung in a far corner.
The same goes for most French doctors’ offices. Although some might look new and sleek, many others are shabby, with outdated periodicals on the table and questionably clean floors. In cities, many of these offices are housed in former apartments, adding to the air of informality. Most doctors, especially GP’s, don’t have nurses or receptionists, so they may have to pause during your consultation to buzz someone into the building or answer a phone call. You also won’t receive any friendly email or postal “reminders” about your next appointment, or holiday greetings, and so on.
Many Americans might also find French doctors a bit curt and lacking in bedside manner. Doctors in countries around the world can struggle with this, the general French attitude of avoiding small talk and niceties doesn’t help.
That doesn’t mean that all French doctors are cold and efficient, though – far from it. Most of the doctors and specialists I’ve encountered here have been at least reasonably nice, and a few, including my médecin traitant, are very friendly. Then again, at least part of what I’m saying may come from the fact that I’m used to French culture. If you’re planning to study or live in France and bedside manner is important to you, do an internet search of a doctor’s name to see if you can find patient reviews.
The lack of sparkling cleanliness, stunning waiting rooms, and small talk has a lot to do with the lower cost of French healthcare, but I also think there’s something very French about this no-frills attitude.
Americans like myself love the bells and whistles. We appreciate – even expect – a pretty, freshly painted doctor’s waiting room with a polite, cheerful receptionist behind the desk. It’s sort of like how we go through life: friendly, smiling, openly emotional. The French, on the other hand, tend to be more practical. They value sincerity and a person’s actual skills above anything else. Sure, France is a country known for fashion, art, and luxury, but when those things aren’t necessary and when the focus should be on more important things, they often fall by the wayside.
When it comes to healthcare, the French opt to put all of their effort into what’s important. This may or may not be easy for people from other cultures to deal with, but it’s just a reality of French life. And I can say that while I do still fall easily under the charm of totally clean and modern-looking American medical facilities, that charm fades when I get the bill. So if you come to France and get sick, don’t worry if your surroundings aren’t the most aesthetically or hygienically pleasing; you’ll still be getting proper medical care.
Have you ever been chez le médecin in France or in another Francophone country? What was your experience like? Feel free to share in the comments!
Photo credits: Photo 1 via DepositPhoto; Photo 2 by Hao Shaw on Unsplash; Photo 3 by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash; Photo 4 by Arseny Togulev on Unsplash