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Heading abroad? Key health insurer terms you MUST know

If you're planning to move abroad, or are already living abroad in 2022, organising your international health insurance is one of the most complex, yet important, tasks on your to-do list. Which is not to mention the added urgency that even the tail-end of a pandemic creates.

Heading abroad? Key health insurer terms you MUST know

Adding to the complexity is the medical insurance legalese you’ll come across when trying to research your best options. Fortunately, many international insurance use similar terms that have the same meaning. Together with provider Cigna Global, we demystify some of the key terms you’ll encounter when choosing a policy. 

Important dates

Generally, insurance policies will be very specific about dates, for a variety of reasons that deal with processes and legal compliance. Coverage may not be included as soon as you sign up, so it’s important to know exactly when your coverage starts and ends, and the duration of time before your policy needs to be renewed. 

Annual renewal date  – This is the yearly anniversary of the policy’s start date.

End date – This is the date that a policy ends, as listed in the certificate of insurance

Initial start date – This is the first day that the treatment of a beneficiary is covered. 

Period of cover – This is usually a period of 12 months, during which a beneficiary is covered, including the start and the end date. 

Start date – The date on which a beneficiary’s coverage starts, as indicated on the certificate of insurance. 

Cigna Global demystifies international health insurance. Discover how to protect you and your family abroad

People and places

Insurance providers are also, obviously, very particular about exactly who is covered by their policies, and where they come from. This is for a variety of reasons regarding international agreements and local laws. On your end, however, it’s important to know what they’re talking about when they ask you who is to be covered, and where. 

Beneficiary – A beneficiary, or beneficiaries, is anybody named in your policy, or certificate of insurance, as being covered. This will usually be your spouse or family members and can include newborns. 

Country of habitual residence – This is the country that a beneficiary resides in, as listed in their application. For example. if you’re an American working abroad in Germany with a residence permit, your country of habitual residence would be Germany. 

Country of nationality – This is the country that a beneficiary is a citizen or permanent resident of, as listed in their application. Essentially, the country or countries that you have a passport(s) for. 

Selected area of coverage – This is the area in which treatment is covered. 

Explore international health insurance options that ensure comprehensive coverage for you and your family


Put your feet up, knowing that you have comprehensive coverage. Photo: Getty Images

Medical terms 

Medical terms constitute the area of most precise language within policy documents. It’s very important that you understand exactly which treatments are covered, as well as those that the provider may opt not to cover, such as in the case of certain pre-existing conditions. 

Congenital condition –  A congenital condition is any deformity, injury or illness that is present at the time of birth, such as cystic fibrosis or clubfoot. 

Evidence-based treatment – These are treatments that have been approved by specific statutory bodies or standards – in the case of Cigna Global, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the International Clinical Guidelines.

Inpatient – An inpatient is a beneficiary admitted to a hospital overnight or longer for treatment – for example, for heart surgery or a similar intensive surgical treatment. 

Medically-necessary – These are those treatments and services that are recognised by the International Clinical Guidelines to be necessary for diagnosing and treating an illness or disease, as standard and orthodox procedure. That is to say, these are treatments and services that are not experimental or untested, or purely cosmetic in nature. 

Outpatient – An outpatient is a beneficiary who attends a hospital or clinic for treatment, for less than a day. Ingrown toenail procedure? That’s an outpatient treatment, and the beneficiary is classified as an outpatient. 

Pre-existing condition – A pre-existing condition is an injury or disease, under treatment or otherwise, that was already present before the start date of a beneficiary’s policy. These can include conditions such as high blood pressure, or asthma that were not present at birth, but developed over time. 

Other important terms

Some terms are very particular to insurance provider documentation, and you may not see them used in any other context. However, they are usually simply ‘legalese’ for rather simple and straightforward concepts, events or objects. 

Certificate of insurance – A document that lists all the important information about the policy, including beneficiaries, dates of validity and treatments or procedures are covered. 

Qualifying life event – These are those events that change the number of beneficiaries covered by a policy, and include births, deaths, adoptions, weddings and civil unions.

Special category data – This is specific data on a beneficiary’s age, race, sex and other affiliations, collected for the purposes of identifying them.

When looking for the right international health coverage, Cigna Global is worth considering for a number of reasons. They offer fully-customisable health coverage, with four levels of statutory cover available, and a broad range of premium contribution options. Cigna Global also offers a direct billing network with more than a million doctors, hospitals and clinics worldwide, meaning that you will easily be able to find treatment options that meet your needs. There’s no upper age limit for cover, and you’ll also enjoy an additional 180 days coverage, while you’re still in your home country, making it easy to transition at either end of your international stay. Finally, full cancer care is offered, including experimental treatments and procedures. 

At a time when we’re all starting to enjoy increased mobility, and working abroad becomes more and more common after the pandemic, it’s crucial that you are covered for any eventuality. Cigna Global is the natural choice for those looking for comprehensive coverage, no matter where their work takes them. 

Learn more about Cigna Global’s broad range of coverage options today, and ensure that your international stay is fully covered against illness or injury 

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HEALTH

Key points: What you should know if you need to see a doctor in Italy

Sooner or later, every foreign national in Italy will have to make an appointment to see a doctor. Here are the key things to know.

Key points: What you should know if you need to see a doctor in Italy

Making a doctor’s appointment is usually thought of as a fairly uncomplicated task but doing so in Italy can turn out to be very tricky, especially if you’ve just relocated to the country and are not quite familiar with how the Italian healthcare system (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, or SSN) works.

On top of that, Italian doctors and other healthcare staff are rarely fluent in English and only very few sections of the SSN’s website provide information in languages other than Italian. 

So, should you ever be faced with the dreaded task, here’s what you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Italy.  

Who has access to GPs?

Only people that hold a valid Italian health card (tessera sanitaria) or an equivalent, i.e. a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or a UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), can access public GPs’ services.

READ ALSO: Who can register for national healthcare in Italy? 

That said, it’s worth noting that the SSN provides emergency care to anyone in need, regardless of their nationality or immigration status and without asking for upfront payment.

A GP making a prescription

Only people that hold a valid Italian health card or a EU equivalent can access public GP’s services. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

Those experiencing a medical emergency can call 118 for an ambulance or head to the emergency ward (pronto soccorso) of the nearest public hospital.

How to register with a GP

In order to make an appointment (visita) with a general practitioner (medico di base) within the SSN, you must first be registered with the doctor in question. 

However, registering with an Italian GP isn’t nearly as straightforward as it should be. 

Firstly, patients are expected to view the list of doctors operating within the territory of their local health authority (Azienda Sanitaria Locale, ASL). 

Though in some cases these lists can be found online, in others residents will have to directly ask their ASL to be sent a copy.

Then, taking the location and office hours of the listed professionals into account, patients are asked to pick the doctor that’s best suited to their needs and communicate their choice to the ASL.

While in some areas this can be done online, most ASLs ask that patients turn up in person at their Scelta e Revoca (Choosing and Cancelling) offices and provide operators with an ID card, a valid Italian health card or equivalent (EHIC or GHIC) and a certificate of residence

READ ALSO: Who to call and what to say in an emergency in Italy

Registrations are generally processed immediately and the doctor’s contact info and booking details are emailed to the patient right after.

How to book an appointment

Once you’re registered with a GP, you can go ahead and book your first appointment. 

A booking can generally be made via phone, email or, in some cases, online. However, as previously mentioned, healthcare staff, including booking office staff, are rarely fluent in English, so email or online bookings might be the better options if you’re not really proficient in Italian.

Doctor speaking on the phone

Patients can book an appointment with their GP via phone, email or, in some cases, a designated online booking platform. Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP

It’s also worth noting that, though they provide patients with a set appointment time, Italian GP clinics tend to run a little late, so, depending on the circumstances, you might have to wait up to thirty minutes for your turn.

During the first appointment, patients are usually handed a form to fill out with general information about themselves and their overall health. 

Due to the above formalities, the first appointment might last a little bit more than normal appointments, which are usually around 15 to 20 minutes.

All consultations with an Italian GP, including the first appointment, are free of charge.

Referral to specialists

GPs can refer patients to a specialist doctor (specialista) for further diagnostic exams or medical procedures.

However, unlike in other European countries, people choosing to see a specialist through the SSN cannot select the doctor they will be referred to as they will be given the earliest available appointment within the relevant medical field.

READ ALSO: Five essential facts about Italy’s public healthcare system  

The referral comes in the form of a red prescription (ricetta rossa) with letters P, D, B and U indicating the different levels of urgency associated with the consultation – P marks the lowest priority level, whereas D is for consultations that must take place within 72 hours from the time of prescription.

The ricetta rossa allows patients to book their appointments online, in person or over the phone by calling the relevant Regional Central Booking Office (Centro Unico di Prenotazione Regionale, CUP).

Nurse looking at X rays

Patients choosing to see a specialist through the public healthcare system cannot select the doctor they will be referred to. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Again, foreign nationals with a poor command of Italian may find that online bookings are the best available option given that most operators are not fluent in English.

Private doctors 

As in other European countries, Italian residents can choose to see private GPs or specialists.

Private healthcare is provided at a fee – typically anything from €40 to €160, depending on the type of service required – and, in most cases, fees must be paid upfront. 

Unlike public health authorities, private providers do not require patients to have a tessera sanitaria or a valid equivalent.  

Aside from the above distinctions however, booking an appointment in the private sector is no different than booking one within the SSN, with patients being allowed to book via phone, email or a designated online platform. 

If you’re looking for an English-speaking doctor, the US Embassy in Rome and the Consulates General in Milan, Florence and Naples provide lists of English-speaking professionals available for private consultation. These can be downloaded here.

The UK government provides a similar list

Essential vocabulary and useful sentences

  • SSN (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) – National health system
  • ASL (Azienda Sanitaria Locale) – Regional health unit
  • Medico di base – General practitioner 
  • Ricetta – Prescription
  • Visita – Appointment 
  • Specialista – Specialist doctor
  • Farmaco – Medicine
  • When booking by email or phone, a useful phrase is: Vorrei fissare una visita alle ore X di X (I would like to schedule an appointment for [day] at [time]).
  • Should you need to cancel the appointment, you could say: Putroppo, devo cancellare la visita.
  • To ask to reschedule it, you could say: Sarebbe possibile spostare la visita?

To describe your sickness, you can check out our terminology guide for the most common ailments.

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