Healthcare in Italy: the 2020s guide for expats and travelers

Healthcare in Italy

How does healthcare in Italy work? Is it free? How do I use my Tessera Sanitaria? Stressed out already? We’ve picked the most confusing points in an attempt to guide you through the Italian Healthcare System.

Is healthcare free in Italy?

Healthcare in Italy is not free, but the fees are usually quite reasonable and Emergency Medical Assistance is provided to anyone in need, regardless of their nationality, without asking for upfront payment.

Healthcare in Italy is provided to anyone with a mixed Public and Private system. Italian law recognizes health as a fundamental right of every person and anyone present in Italy is entitled to a form of healthcare (a concept known as “Universal Health Care“).

The average level of medical care is quite high compared to international standards (Italian healthcare system ranked 2nd best in terms of performance in the World according to the World Health Organization’s report), and Italian doctors are usually highly qualified. Life expectancy in Italy is among the highest in the OECD group of countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). See the 2019 OECD report about healthcare in Italy.

Italy has universal healthcare coverage, but only some services are completely free

Most services demand a cost-sharing and many are provided at the patient’s full expense. 

The co-pay fee is called “Ticket” and it is applied to some emergency room visits, specialist consultations, diagnostic procedures and lab analyses. 

The amount of the co-pay is different from region to region and it depends on the type of services required and on the patient’s status (there are forms of exemption – esenzione in Italian –  for low income and serious illnesses). 

The amount of the co-pay is different from region to region and it depends on the type of services required and on the patient’s status

Public healthcare in Italy

The Italian National Healthcare Service (SSN – Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) is the Public, tax-funded medical assistance, organized and regulated by the Ministry of Health and administered through regional authorities. To access the Italian National Healthcare Service you must hold a valid Tessera Sanitaria (Italian Health Insurance Card) or the equivalent from another EU country (the EHIC card – European Health Insurance Card).

Foreign citizens with regular stay permit are fully entitled to the same rights and treatment as any Italian citizen.

Public healthcare is provided through regional health units called ASL (Azienda Sanitaria Locale – Local Health Authority) and Public Hospitals. In Rome, for example, there are six Public Hospitals, and more than 50 ASL offices. 

The ASL is an administrative organization, which manages a set of public clinics and medical services (e.g. vaccination centers, public walk-in clinics, labs for analyses and imaging, etc.).

Public medical assistance includes a network of primary care physicians and pediatricians

You will be asked to choose your public Primary Care Doctor (called medico di base, your personal doctor). Once registered with your public doctor, you are entitled to free consultations, referrals and prescription refills with this doctor, within his or her office hours. Make sure to choose a doctor who has convenient office hours, especially if you have difficulty leaving work to see the doctor.

Foreign citizens with regular stay permit are fully entitled to the same rights and treatment as any Italian citizen.

Private healthcare in Italy

Private healthcare in Italy, as in other countries, is provided at a fee. In most cases you will be required to pay upfront for the services, installment payment options are usually available for larger sums (e.g. for hospitalisation or elective surgery). As a large percentage of Italians rely on Public Healthcare, Private medical services are rarely overcrowded and usually provide a more comfortable experience and a better customer care.

Medical fees in Italy are usually very reasonable, compared to other countries with similar cost of living.

Private hospitals in Italy often operate also in agreement with the Italian National Healthcare Service. When they do, they are in the category called Privato Convenzionato (Private with agreement). This means they can also be accessed with the Italian Health Insurance Card (Tessera Sanitaria), under certain conditions. If they have an Emergency Room (Pronto Soccorso) it is certainly accessible through Public Healthcare.

If you wish to access services at a Private clinic using your Tessera Sanitaria, you need to communicate this in advance, as there are dedicated slots for Public Healthcare. If you fail to communicate it in advance, you will be required to pay as a private patient.

Medical fees in Italy are usually very reasonable, compared to other countries with similar cost of living.

What can I do with the Italian health insurance card (Tessera Sanitaria)?

When you get your Tessera Sanitaria (Italian Health Insurance Card) you are officially entitled to the same rights and duties regarding healthcare as Italian citizens. For example you can:

I'm a European citizen traveling to Italy. Do I get free medical assistance?

As a EU Citizen or permanent resident, you should have your EHIC (European Health Insurance Card). The EHIC card gives you access to Healthcare in Italy as if you were an Italian resident. 

You will have free access to Public Primary Care Physicians, Emergency Rooms (for emergency only!) and discounted access to specialists and diagnostic procedures, if prescribed by a Doctor within the Italian Healthcare National Service (SSN – Servizio Sanitario Nazionale).

The EHIC card won’t cover you if you wish to access private clinics and doctors, so you may want to purchase a private travel or medical insurance as well.

With the EHIC card, you have access to the same benefits of an Italian citizen holding the local Italian Health Insurance Card (Tessera Sanitaria) so everything you find in this article in relation to how to use the Tessera Sanitaria applies to you as well.

Tessera sanitaria or EHIC - used to access healthcare in Italy
Use this if you are a EU Citizen

So what is free in the Italian National Healthcare Service?

Consultations with your public Primary Care Physician (Medico di base) and with the pediatrician (Pediatra di libera scelta) are free. Hospital admission is free if you are admitted for a necessary procedure. If you want to have an elective procedure (for example a preventive check up), this would not be free.

Some specialist consultations, lab analyses, and diagnostic procedures are free, but only if prescribed by your public Primary Care Physician (medico di base). 

You can book them with a so called “Red prescription” (in Italian “Ricetta Rossa” – also called impegnativa – it is the official document that shows you are doing a procedure within the Italian National Healthcare Service).

Red prescription used to access public healthcare in Italy
The red prescription which allows you to access healthcare in Italy

Also some medicines are free (usually the ones related to serious illness or life threatening conditions) while for others you can get a discounted fee if you have a red prescription from your public Primary Care Physician (medico di base).

Some specialist consultations, lab analyses, and diagnostic procedures are free, but only if prescribed by your public Primary Care Physician (medico di base).

Limits of public healthcare in Italy

As with all things free, there is a flip side of the coin. To avoid being disappointed, keep in mind that:

  • Your primary care physician – self-employed, though under NHS – will be available to see you only in pre-set office hours, different for each doctor. House calls will be provided very rarely, only in case of objective need.
  • The doctor’s office may be crowded and appointments are generally not available (patients are seen in order of arrival). If the office is too full, you may need to go back another day.
  • Most general practitioners working as Italian National Healthcare Service doctors do not speak English, so you might not be able to communicate effectively if you don’t learn Italian.
  • Hospitals are big and can be very confusing, you are likely to end up wandering around looking for the right desk or waiting for a while, even if you have an appointment.
  • If you need to do a diagnostic procedure for something not urgent, or to see a specialist through the Italian National Healthcare Service (SSN – Servizio Sanitario Nazionale), you may end up waiting weeks, or even months before there is an available date.
  • You cannot choose your doctor, when being referred to see a specialist. You will be seen by whoever is available at the time of your appointment, within the requested specialty.

How do I see a public primary care physician in Italy?

If you are registered with the Italian National Healthcare Service (SSN – Servizio Sanitario Nazionale), you have also selected your public General Practitioner (medico di base), the doctor who is in charge of your health. You can go visit this physician within the official working hours he or she has declared. You can also call to request a house visit, if you cannot get out of bed.

The doctor will see you soon

I need to see a doctor when my primary care physician is not available

On Saturdays, Sundays, and during the night (from 8pm to 8 am) every day, or if you are in a different city and cannot see your personal doctor, you can find primary care assistance at a Healthcare Assistance Continuity Center near you ( usually known as Servizio di continuità assistenziale in Italian) where you will be seen by an NHS doctor who can help you with prescriptions and refills, medical consultations and dressing of minor wounds. This may have a fee, depending on local and regional rules. This public centers are available also for phone consultations, though the staff may not speak English. 

Do they have urgent cares in Italy?

Urgent care walk-in clinics are not common in Italy as everyone has a designated primary care physician that they can visit the same day. Doctors at urgent care centers always change shifts so it’s not easy to find an available English-speaking doctor. 

Healthcare in Italy for tourists

During the summer, in the areas with high tourist flow, a Doctor on Duty service for tourists is activated.  For organizational reasons, this service requires the payment of the visit by all tourists. The fee can be different in every Region. 

If you prefer a private alternative or to see an English speaking doctor, it would be better to book an appointment at a private medical center dedicated to English speaking patients, or to find a private walk-in clinic clearly offering services in English. In this case you would have to pay a fee, probably higher than the one you would pay for the Doctor on Duty service. The invoice given to you after the consultation can be used to claim for refund with your private medical insurance provider.

How can I see a private doctor?

To see a Private doctor, regardless of your nationality, you can contact a private medical center to book an appointment, to learn about walk-in hours or to request a specialist. Some services are more prepared to assist English speaking patients, a good way to know is to check if the staff who answers the phone speaks English. Private doctor fees should be the same for Italian and foreign patients (if they are different beware of a possible scam!). Your travel insurance or medical insurance is likely to cover the cost of your consultation, especially if you get sick or injured during your time in Italy. 

One of the fastest way to find an English-speaking physician in Italy is to use Doctors in Italy, a network of the best Italian health care professionals carefully selected for their international background. The mission of Doctors in Italy is to remove the pain points from finding a health professional while visiting or living in Italy. Trusted by diplomatic delegations and international organizations, Doctors in Italy’s network is rapidly growing and includes only the best hospitals and doctors across the country. 

Online consultations

Virtual care is a great alternative for addressing any urgent or time-sensitive health questions.

There are probably times when you’re pretty sure you know what’s going on (that burning sensation when you pee has to be a UTI) but if you’re far from your doctor and don’t speak the local language, this can be a hassle. 

With DoctorsinItaly you can see a primary care physician or a medical specialist on-demand, licensed in Italy guaranteed to speak English. This means that the doctor is authorized to prescribe medication in Italy (that would not be possible with services offered by non-Italian doctors who are not authorized to practice in Italy). 

Video visits have a much lower cost than an office visit, can be arranged in minutes and provide the patients with a prescription that can be filled at any pharmacy, anywhere in Italy. 


Can pharmacists prescribe in Italy?

No, only medical doctors licensed and authorized to practice in Italy can prescribe medication in Italy. Pharmacists dispense medicinal products by prescription from a licensed medical provider or can recommend over the counter medication. 

How to get antibiotics in Italy?

You need a medical prescription issued by a doctor who is licensed in Italy. Pharmacists cannot dispense antibiotics without a valid medical prescription. This rule is necessary for preventing the abuse of antimicrobial usage and the development of antibiotic resistance.

You can see a doctor and get a prescription in minutes using our online Urgent Care service.

Can you get antibiotics over the counter in Italy?

No. Pharmacists are not allowed to dispense antibiotics without a valid medical prescription issued by a doctor licensed in Italy. 

How do I get a prescription filled in Italy?

If you have a valid medical prescription issued by a doctor licensed in Italy either after an in-person or a telemedicine appointment, you can fill it at any pharmacy across Italy. 

Can I get a prescription filled in another country?

In theory a medical prescription issued in a EU country must be recognised in all other EU countries (Article 11 of Directive 2011/24/EU of 9 March 2011). In practice the pharmacist very often refuse to dispense the medication. The easiest way to proceed is to ask a local doctor to re-issue the prescription. 

How much does a prescription cost in Italy?

You cannot “buy” a prescription. You can have a consultation with a doctor who can issue a prescription for a medication you need. If you use DoctorsinItaly you can easily get it done through a video consultation at a very affordable fee (usually around 20 EUR). Please consider that controlled substances cannot be prescribed via video consultation. 

I need to see a specialist doctor

For specialist consultations, many Italians rely on private medical centers for increased comfort, closer doctor-patient relationship, more flexibility in scheduling options and faster access to medical assistance.

Consultations with a specialist prescribed by primary care physicians of the National Healthcare in Italy (like your “medico di base”, a primary care physician who is part of the Italian NHS or by other doctors you see within the NHS), can be arranged at either Public Healthcare Centres or at the ones that are private with NHS agreement (which is called Privato Convenzionato). These services are subject to co-payment (called Ticket), which is non-refundable.

If you are looking for the least expensive option you can either go to an Emergency Department (if it is something very serious and urgent) or you can book an appointment at a public hospital (if it is not urgent). 

If you go to the Emergency Room for a non-urgent need, you are likely to end up waiting a long time, paying the Ticket, and simply being referred for a consultation with a specialist, without seeing one. 

Moreover you would be increasing the workload of a fragile system, often on the verge of collapse. The co-pay for non-emergency cases is intended as a means to avoid patients overcrowding the ER, limiting access to those who really need emergency assistance.

To see a specialist (e.g. an obgyn, a dermatologist, a cardiologist) through the Italian NHS you need first to see your public Primary Care Physician to get a referral in the form of a red prescription (ricetta rossa).

If you really need to see the specialist soon, your family doctor can request an urgent appointment in the prescription (within 10 days or within 30 days), which will give you access to an earlier available slot saved for urgent needs.

Once you have the red prescription, you can book your appointment online (in some regions, for Lazio family doctor) or by calling the regional CUP (Centro Unico di Prenotazione Regionale – regional central booking office – 803333 for Lazio). You can also call directly a Hospital at their CUP phone number. You will need an Italian friend to help you book the appointment: there is no translation or English-speaking operator. Remember that you cannot choose your doctor, the earliest publicly available appointment will be assigned to you by the operator.

Inside a public hospital

Make sure to go well ahead of the appointment, especially if it is your first time, as it can be quite hard to locate the correct ward, complete the administrative procedures, pay the Ticket (the co-pay fee) and find the right waiting area.

Where can I go if I need blood tests, x-ray, or other diagnostic procedure?

The process is similar to seeing a specialist. You can choose between:

  • A Public Hospital or Clinic (with your ricetta rossa, prepared by your public Primary Care Doctor)
  • A Private Hospital, Clinic or Lab with NHS Agreement (also with ricetta rossa and specifying you need the procedure as Italian National Healthcare Service patient – paziente SSN) – if you don’t specify in advance you will be required to pay as Private patient
  • A Private Medical Center, Clinic or Lab where you can have this procedure (ask if they have the test or diagnostic procedure you need).

Keep in mind that public clinics and hospitals do not send results over email, so if you do lab analyses you will need to go back in person to collect the results.

Public labs and hospitals do not send results over email, so if you do lab analyses you will need to go back in person to collect the results.

What do I do if I need emergency medical assistance or if I have an accident?

Emergency medical assistance in Italy is provided to everyone, without asking for upfront payment or insurance information. If you are in a medical emergency, you can take a taxi and walk-in to the closest Pronto Soccorso (Emergency Room).

For emergency assistance you can also use European Emergency number,  call 112 (no country code needed). The emergency medical assistance number 118 will ask questions about the patient’s conditions, address, phone number to reach you. If the patient needs urgent access to an ER, they will send an ambulance or a helicopter.

The service is provided at no charge, but of course only for serious medical conditions requiring emergency response. The ambulance will take you to an Emergency Room where you will be evaluated and treated as soon as possible.

Patients accessing the ER are not seen in order of arrival but based on the urgency of their need, assessed through a standard evaluation process called triage which assigns them a color code

Alternatives to the Emergency Room for minor ailments.

If you go to the ER for non-emergency needs, you will be required to pay the ticket and you are very likely to end up waiting a long time as all emergency patients will be assisted before you.

Hospital assistance and admission, if required, is free of charge if you have the EHIC card or the Italian Health Insurance Card (Tessera Sanitaria). 

If you don’t, the fees are still very reasonable, and if you keep the receipts you may be reimbursed by your private medical insurance provider.

If you want a private room and more comfort, you can request it at a charge. You can also be transferred to a Private Hospital of your choice by arranging admission. You will get the quotation in advance, so you can choose if you wish to be transferred.

The qualifications of doctors at public and private hospitals are the same, the difference would be in comfort, access to English Speaking staff in selected clinics, the possibility to choose your doctor, and in some cases a shorter waiting time for a surgery (for non life threatening orthopedic surgery, for example).

Will any doctor accept my tessera sanitaria?

The answer is No.

Your Italian Health Insurance Card (Tessera Sanitaria) will work only with your Public Primary Care Physician, who is your go-to doctor, and the doctors at the public clinics called “servizio di continuità assistenziale” dedicated to patients who are not in their current city of residence (or with urgent needs that cannot wait for the doctor’s working hours). If you have the EHIC card and are not registered with any specific public Primary Care Physician, you can go to any Public Primary Care Doctor for medical assistance.

Can I get a prescription refill? And are medications free with tessera sanitaria?

If you find yourself traveling in Italy and have misplaced or depleted your medication supply, worry not. Acquiring a prescription refill is a straightforward process. Through the 24/7 online Rx service of Doctors in Italy, by presenting your home doctor’s report or a recent prescription, you can effortlessly secure your prescription refill online. However, when it comes to controlled substances, an in-person appointment with a local doctor will always be required. If you have the EHIC, your National Healthcare Service Primary Care Physician can give you a free prescription refill if you need it. As for the cost of medicines, in Italy they are rarely very expensive in general. With the printed prescription given to you by a National Healthcare Service Doctor (if you have a EHIC) some medicines are free (usually the ones related to serious illness or life threatening conditions) while for others you can get a discounted fee.

I'm from Australia and I need medical assistance, do I need to pay?

The reciprocal agreement between your country of origin and Italy allows you to access Public Healthcare in Italy at no fee or at a lower fee, without registering to the NHS, under certain conditions:

  • It needs to be essential medical care that can’t wait till you get home
  • You need to go through the National Healthcare Service, Private medical centers are not covered
  • It is valid only for 6 months from your arrival

The agreement covers medical care if admitted to a hospital and for outpatient treatment, but only at Public Hospitals, Public Primary Care Physicians and Public Outpatient Clinics.

Coverage may vary from country to country, check here if your country of origin has reciprocal healthcare agreement with Italy and what is covered.

DoctorsinItaly Team

This article was written, curated, and updated by the DoctorsinItaly team, as part of our efforts to share relevant and current information on health and wellness related topics, as well as on life as an expat or traveler in Italy.