What's Up, Doc?
Pre-departure medical requirements
My experience with the mandator medical exam in Qatar
Being in Qatar during cold & flu season
Healthcare in Qatar
Insurance options in Qatar and comparisons to the U.S.
Final thoughts on the healthcare scene in Qatar
This is a pretty shot, right? Think happy thoughts. Insurance and healthcare and illness may be scary, but just look at the flowers and try to be as mellow as possible.
The act of moving to Qatar for such a long period of time meant I had some healthcare research to dive into and some mandatory doctor visits to partake in, both in Qatar and the U.S. Most of it was straightforward, but some of it, well, some of it was very stressful. In this post I’ll give you a quick rundown of the medical work I had to get done, some info about insurance, and a few fun facts I learned about how healthcare works in Qatar.
A warning, though: Part of my medical experience in Doha is a little hazy because of the panic I felt throughout it, so forgive any vagueness in that upcoming narrative. That same experience also affected my willingness to investigate Qatari healthcare in person, making the information I was able to collect while in the country a little sparse. I’ve only got a handful of things to share, but hopefully this handful will be a good starting point as you possibly plan to stay in Qatar for 1/3 of the year.
Pre-departure Medical Recap
Everyone was required to get screened for tuberculosis. It could have been a chest x-ray or a bubble test (I took the latter).
Everyone was required to take a blood test (also called a blood titer). We didn’t need to get tested for anything special, we just had to get an official document stating our blood type. You can learn your blood type for free by donating blood, but I didn’t weigh enough to donate blood, so I hit up a Patient First and paid out of pocket.
VCUQ thought that the clinic at VCU-Richmond offered blood tests but, as we all learned, they didn’t.
All study abroad students were encouraged to get vaccinations for diseases prevalent in whatever country they were travelling to. A doctor will be able to tell you which vaccines you should take, or you could probably find the info online, but coincidentally Qatar didn’t have any notable diseases in the area (which meant there were no extra vaccines I needed to take).
When I went to Patient First for my blood test, I also asked about which special travel vaccines I needed. The doc said I didn’t need any, but he did give me a little yellow book, a travel-sized book, that listed all my vaccines and when I got them. It was like a cheat sheet so I wouldn’t have to carry my whole folder of medical records in my purse while travelling throughout the country.
I don’t remember sending VCUQ copies of my standard vaccinations, which would make sense because as a student already attending VCU-Richmond, VCUQ would have known I was already vaccinated. Afterall, I wouldn’t have been able to attend VCU-Richmond without having my vaccinations in order.
I still brought digital and hardcopies of my medical records with me to Qatar, though. Just because the university didn’t ask for some stuff didn’t mean I wouldn’t ever need it.
Qatar Medical Recap
The Medical Exam
This was me the morning of the medical exam, taking a goofy bathroom selfie. I thought it was going to be a good day.
In addition to making sure all your regular vaccines are in order, every expatriate in Qatar has to go through a relatively quick medical clearance exam. I didn’t have to get a full physical done, but I did have to get a needle stuck in my arm and get tested for tuberculosis . . . again. Yes, even though all us exchange students got screened for TB before entering the country, we later found out that we had to get screened for it again after arriving. Wait, let me just quote exactly what some of the VCUQ immigration paperwork said:
Qatar Immigration laws require that individuals seeking residency in Qatar be screened for tuberculosis, HIV, and Hepatitis B and C. Therefore, the following tests will be administered:
Positive findings to any of these tests will result in immediate repatriation from Qatar.
If you wish to be sure that you do not have any of the above-mentioned medical conditions, we recommend that you have the tests listed above done in your home country prior to your arrival in Qatar.
For the record, in addition to already having been tested for TB, I was also vaccinated for Hepatitis B way back in 1999. Both of those things were reflected in my medical records, but alas, I suppose it didn't matter the day of the medical exam.
So, what was that like? The medical clearance exam? I won’t leave you in suspense: It was the worst experience I had in the country, and definitely one of the worst experiences of my life to date.
One day in January, sometime around noon, all of the new exchange students (and perhaps two faculty members) from all the U.S. universities waited in front of the LAS Building for the minibus that would take us all to (what I assume was) Al Gharafa Health Center, the closest medical facility to Education City. I can’t say for certain what medical center it was because I really don’t remember; it wasn’t shady or anything like that, but I don’t remember seeing any signs . . . I don’t even remember being told where we were going, only what we were doing and where to wait for the minibus.
Well, wherever we were, the place had two separate wings for men and women, and either wing had same-gendered nurses, doctors, and security. It was at this point that the boys in our group split up from the girls. The girls were with the liaison from VCUQ and she helped guide us through the process up until we had to leave the lobby and enter the exam area. This was where things got hectic for me.
Throughout the entirety of it, there was very little direction from the . . . nurses? They didn’t give off a nurse vibe and though I remember them were wearing uniforms, I don’t think they were scrubs. Whoever they were, they weren’t giving clear instructions or answering questions and it made the whole process understandably more difficult.
Next, there were about four dressing rooms available for us to change into hospital gowns, but the thing is, there were at least ten women. Instead of having us wait our turn individually, we were told to double up and strip half naked with strangers in rooms built for one. I suppose the country’s usual modest social standards didn’t apply to expatriate medical exams for some reason?
On top of that, what you are supposed to do before getting a chest x-ray is undress from the waist up, take off all your accessories, and put on the hospital gown, but because of the lack of communication between us and the “nurses”, a few of us didn’t prepare correctly. For example, no one could get a clear answer as to whether or not we were supposed to keep our bras on, so some of us—myself included—kept them on. They should have been taken off, though, because of the metal in underwire bras can screw with the x-ray image. For this reason, we also should have taken off things like earrings and glasses, but alas, that mistake got made too.
After changing, we lined up to at the door of the x-ray room and entered one at a time. When it was my turn I went in, stood there not knowing what to do, and a . . . doctor? Nurse? A woman walked me over to the x-ray machine (a contraption I had never seen before) and physically sprawled me across it. She didn’t attempt to give me verbal instruction on what to do, she just put her hands on me and positioned me herself, which really startled me.
So, I laid there, stretched out & frozen, waiting for someone to tell me I could move. It was odd because I had to face away from the radiology technicians, meaning I couldn’t see them, but when the x-ray was done, they didn’t say anything. Come to find out they were gesturing for me to get off the machine when the scans were done, but since I couldn’t see them eventually one lady had to come from behind the screened desk and get me.
After that I got dressed—alone, thankfully—and was ushered into a room where a doctor or nurse stuck a needle in my arm. I think she drew blood, perhaps for more TB testing? Or perhaps she injected me with something. I can't say for certain what went down. What I do remember, however, is that she didn’t speak or look at me. I wasn’t looking for a conversation, but I’d also never been in such a cold environment with a doctor. I just came into the room, sat down, got poked in the arm, the doc handed me a Band-Aid, and then she gestured that I should leave. After that I waited for everyone else in the lobby, then we all piled back onto the minibus and rode back to campus.
I don't remember receiving any paperwork after all this. I'm sure the hospital has a record of the treatment I received, but I definitely don't.
Thing is, throughout this whole process I felt a little dazed, like I had stepped one foot into the Twilight Zone. People asking questions and barely getting acknowledgment, let alone answers. Having a stranger see me half naked. Having doctors put their hands on me without warning and take blood from my body without once making eye contact. I was shook up for the rest of the day, and I probably should have gone home after instead of catching the tail end of class. This whole experience at the medical center triggered some flashbacks to very shitty experiences I had had years prior; I didn’t anticipate a doctor’s visit sparking those memories.
What I learned, though was that this particular hospital was known for being exactly as I described. People who didn't have presumed PTSD from assaults complain about the treatment at this place. The emotionally sterile environment. The lack of communication. The confusion about doctors and nurses, complaints about physicians repeatedly failing to stick needles in patients' arms, and the feeling of being herded around like cattle. However, as of 2019, this is the only place for anyone applying for a Residency Permit to get their medical exam completed. Sure, there are other hospitals that do the same procedures, but those hospitals are essentially private. This one, however, is essentially "the government hospital"; it's a direct funnel from their medical offices to the immigration office, and there's no way around it.
What about the germs on campus?
Qatar is filled with a lot of people travelling from a lot of different countries all year round, which makes it pretty easy for germs to get around. Being on a college campus makes catching germs even more likely, and being there during cold & flu season, well, I figured some people would be sick. I even brought cold medicine and vitamin C supplements to combat the germs I just knew would try and get me. Thing is, though, I didn’t encounter anyone who was sick. No one caught any manner of flu, cold, or obscure stomach bug, and they definitely didn’t catch the measles (which was more than I could say for the U.S. and VCU-Richmond [please reconsider not vaccinating your children, antivaxxers]). Granted, there was one student who caught H1N1, and I think she caught it from her brother (who I think caught it from somewhere abroad), but that was a very isolated incident, you know? Otherwise, the only sickness I heard people complaining about were allergies.
That said, I didn’t get sick with any sort of germ or intestinal upset while I was in Qatar. Heck, even my allergies disappeared (for the first time in over a decade).
So why wasn’t there an absurd number of germs spreading around campus in the midst of cold & flu season? There could be a few reasons for that. For one, I noticed that most of Doha keeps public spaces absurdly clean compared to what I was used to in the U.S. Then there’s the healthcare situation in Doha: Almost everyone has affordable access to it, so if someone is feeling sick they have access to medical care. Also, generally speaking, Qatar is much more chill compared to the U.S. and when people are sick, they stay home. This could be because Qatar is culturally laid back, because a lot of people are financially secure enough to miss work, or because the schools in Education City are much smaller and more personal (allowing for students to more easily build relationships with faculty & classmates, making communication a lot easier when illness strikes), but whatever the reason, most people I met said that if they were sick they wouldn’t feel compelled to bring their germs out the house and risk infecting other people at work or school.
And hey, most germs like cold weather and Qatar is not cold by any stretch of the imagination. Their lows in the winter linger around 60° F (about 15 ° C) and by the end of February, Qatar is a pleasantly warm place to be (and by spring, it’s hot as Hades). I’d still recommend getting your flu shot before leaving the U.S. if you’re travelling mid-winter like I was, but even if you miss out on it, you can still get one in Qatar.
Qatari Healthcare Fun Facts
Let’s have a hippie dippy artist moment. For some reason this photograph of a measuring stick and a looped piece of gold twine on the floor against a grey background with a thick black bar blocking part of the image reminds me of the U.S. healthcare system.
Who doesn’t love a good fun fact? Okay, so maybe healthcare isn’t the most fun topic to discuss, but I’ll get right to the point!
Qatari citizens get free national healthcare.
Qatar has lots of clinics, which were described to me as “mini hospitals”. I never visited one because I didn’t know they existed, but from what I understand they are similar to a Patient First or MedExpress except they have access to more toys, tests, and doctors (sometimes including specialty doctors like gynecologists).
I heard there was a clinic in Education City, but no one could tell me exactly where it was, what they did, or how much it costed. I did a quick Google search, which brought up the Qatar Foundation Primary Health Care Center (attached to the Student Center) but all I could find were sad reviews about how long it took to be seen by a doctor, complaints about them not being open on the weekends, and a blurb about how it’s a resource for faculty & staff (with no mention of students). I know I should have continued researching, but I was already reluctant to seek further medical care after my experience at Al Gharafa; it was easy for one fruitless Google search to immediately sway my decision.
But don’t be like me! Do your own research or, heck, walk over to the clinic and ask questions in person. Another resource I found (months after returning home) said it was open for students, it was open on Saturdays, and that they even had dentists.
Qatar had plenty of pharmacies. There was one in the Student Center right next to the mini mart that was always fully stocked and open during standard work hours, I believe. Pharmacies outside of Education City? I assume there alright, but the one I visited had shelves that were eerily empty, like they had been raided after the onset of the zombie apocalypse.
The Qatari version of 911 is 999. That’s something I didn’t know the whole time I was in the country. Be better than me, you guys.
This is the ISIC Card VCU gave me before I went to Qatar. I think by the end of my undergraduate travel experiences I had three of these things. Also, my profile photo is awkwardly stretched out, and that’s my own fault.
I was 21 years old and had only just begin to understand how insurance worked in the U.S. Then, suddenly, I was moving to Qatar and had to figure out what the international insurance situation would be like. So, let me just give you a quick rundown of the few things I learned.
I don’t know if this is a Qatar thing or a VCUQ thing, but all the exchange students were required to have health insurance before arriving in the country. It didn’t matter if the insurance was in our name or if we were a dependent, we just had to send them proof of insurance.
VCU-Richmond gave all students studying abroad (for any period of time) an International Student Identity Card (ISIC Card). It’s the only internationally recognized Student ID and it offers some basic (but very worthwhile) free insurance, and you have the option of upgrading it for a fee.
The ISIC Card also gets you discounts at certain museums around the world, just so yah know.
If we didn’t have insurance, or just wanted some extra coverage, VCUQ suggested applying for a Qatari national Health Card. There’s a fee for the card itself, about $33 in 2018, but they last until your visa expires.
Of course, not having any manner of insurance can make medical attention pricey, but still not as bad as in the U.S. One uninsured expatriate I knew went to a clinic and was able to get a consultation, a chest x-ray, and two prescriptions for $60 (they had a sinus infection, come to find out). For comparison, the chest x-ray alone can cost anywhere between $100 and $1,000 for uninsured U.S. citizens.
Generally speaking, Qatar’s healthcare system is badass. As mentioned earlier, Qatari citizens are fully covered by the country and expatriates are either covered by their employer or they have to purchase insurance. Thing is, with whatever Qatari insurance you do have, chances are whenever you visit a doctor your bill will wind up being free or highly subsidized (meaning you’re going to have a minimal copay). And if you don’t have insurance, basic doctor visits and prescriptions will still be affordable-ish.
Insurance may not be an exciting topic, but affordable healthcare is one of those sweet, sweet gifts of life that everybody should have access to. Coming from the U.S., the healthcare system can be a nightmare, but knowing Qatar had some feasible ways to seek medical attention offered some peace of mind once I got around to learning about it.
Let me tell you a story: When I was in Qatar, I didn’t get sick with a germ, but I did continuously get these awful dizzy spells, so bad that I couldn’t sit up in bed. I realized three months in that my dizziness (and a few other symptoms) coincided with the onset of my menstrual cycle, but by the time I figured that out, it was essentially time for me to go back to the U.S. For three months I knew something was wrong, but I wasn’t asking myself the right questions to figure it out, the sorts of questions a doctor would have asked me.
But I didn’t go to a doctor. I didn’t want to.
Listen, I know that growing up I didn’t have much experience with doctors, dentists, hospitals—the works—so when I entered Qatar, I already wasn’t in the habit of getting myself checked on by a medical professional. But then the fact I had such a rough experience during my first healthcare visit just pushed me further away from the idea of going to the doctor, even when I was sick. And insurance? My only experience was with the U.S. system, and I had just begun to comprehend it . . . I assumed seeing a doctor would cost money I definitely didn’t have, so that’s another reason I didn’t bother.
But, I’m sure that if I had had a better understanding of what the medical situation was like in Qatar—and definitely if I hadn’t had such a triggering healthcare experience my first week in the country—I would have been more open to seeking medical attention when I got sick. I would have wanted to see a doctor. And I’d like to believe that if I had read something like this, boring as it may be, I would have had some basic information about what I would be up against and I would have felt more comfortable jumping into the Qatari healthcare scene. So, I hope this post helped you out! I hope it prepared you for some stuff, the good and the potentially terrifying.