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Healthcare in France: The essential French vocabulary you'll need if you're ill

The Local France
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Healthcare in France: The essential French vocabulary you'll need if you're ill
A doctor's office in central France. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

Getting health treatment in France - especially if you're not yet fluent in French - can be overwhelming and uncomfortable. Here are the words and terms you need to know.


Un cabinet medical

One of the first things you'll need to know if you want to visit a doctor in France is where to go and that's off to your cabinet medical (doctor's surgery).  

Numéro de sécurité sociale

When you come to live in France you can apply for a social security number. Initially you'll be given a temporary one and once you have that you can access the French healthcare system relatively hassle free. You'll receive your permanent number once you get your carte vitale.

La carte vitale

This is your social security card and once you've got hold of one (which for some can be a long and tricky road) guard it with your life. Every time you go to the doctor's you'll need to take it with you -- it contains your medical records and helps with refunding you the correct amount for any medical care you receive.

READ MORE: How to get a carte vitale in France and why you need one

La mutuelle

This is a kind of top-up health insurance usually provided to employees in France with a CDI (full-time, permanent) contract.

The way healthcare cover works in France is that the government pays a certain amount, your mutuelle will cover most of the rest and you'll cover whatever is left over. The costs covered by a mutuelle vary from company to company. You'll often be asked by doctors, at least specialist ones, if you have a mutuelle and you'll often be asked at the pharmacie too.

READ MORE: Health insurance in France: What you need to know about a mutuelle



To find a doctor's surgery you can use a handy website called Doctolib which allows you to enter criteria like what kind of doctor you're looking for and where you'd like them to be based. 

READ MORE: How to use: French medical website Doctolib

La feuille de soin

If you don't have a carte vitale or you forgot yours or perhaps the doctor isn't equipped to take them you will normally be given a "Feuille de soin". This is your treatment form which provides evidence for any medical care you have received. The patient has to send them to their local CPAM (see below) office and also to the organisation managing their top-up insurance (mutuelle) in order to be reimbursed.

As French society becomes more computer-friendly, some doctors might be willing to offer a digital copy. In most cases, once you are signed up for French health insurance the reimbursements will be automatically sent to your French bank account.

CPAM (Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie)

CPAM is the organisation responsible for dealing with state covered healthcare in France. This is the place which issues your carte vitale and where you send your feuilles de soin (see above). They are also in charge of reimbursing you on behalf of the state.


To make life easier you can set up your own account on CPAM's website, which will keep track of all your personal health information, including your refunds and the feuilles de soin you have submitted. 


The site also allows you to search for a doctor in your area in a similar way to Doctolib. 

READ MORE: Ameli: How to create your online French social security account

Conventionnés secteur 1 et 2

When you book your doctor on Doctolib it will state whether they are sector 1 or sector 2.

Sector 1 includes doctors who apply the normal tariff set by the government, which for an appointment with a GP for example is €25. Usually, once the government has refunded the standard 70 percent, the fee left over either to be paid by you or by a combination of you and your mutelle is about €7.50.

Keep in mind that these appointments were set to increase in price during the final months of 2023.

However sector 2 includes physicians who are allowed to charge more for their services "with tact and moderation". This extra cost known as dépassement honoraires is not covered by social security but may be covered by your mutuelle.

If you are booking an appointment with a doctor for the first time over the phone, it is probably worth checking which category they fall into. 

READ MORE: Medical appointments in France to increase in price

Le medecin/le docteur

Despite what you might have been told, both le medecin and le docteur are perfectly acceptable words for doctor in French and you'll hear both used. 

Un generaliste 

A generaliste is a GP and your registered GP is called your medecin traitant. When you sign up for French healthcare you'll be asked to fill out a form with the details of the doctor you would like to be your regular GP.


READ MORE: Explained: How to register with a doctor in France

Other words for medical staff

Un infirmier/une infirmière

The nurse

Un chirurgien, une chirurgienne

The surgeon


The midwife

La malade

And this is you, the patient.  

Le frottis

For the women out there, this is the French word for a smear test. 

La pilule

This is what you need to ask for if you're after birth control pills.

Le sang 

This is the word for blood and if you need a blood test, you'll be told you need a "prise du sang"

Meanwhile taking your blood pressure is called "prendre votre tension".  

Salle d'attente

When you arrive it's likely you'll be asked to go to the salle d'attente (waiting room) and remember, in France people say bonjour to the other people there. 

Salle de consultation

This the examination room where you'll be sent for your consultation or rendez-vous (appointment) when the doctor is ready. 

Lettre de recommandation 

This is a referral letter from your GP which allows you to see a specialist. You'll need to take it along to your appointment with you along with your carte vitale, of course.

Arrêt de maladie/ travail

This is the authorised sick leave you would get after visiting a French doctor.

READ MORE: ‘Arrêt de maladie’: Why you’ll need a sick note in France – and how to get one

Les symptomes 

Words and phrases for common symptomes (symptoms) include la douleur aigue (sharp pain), l'enflure or le gonflement (swelling), des boutons (spots) and avoir des démangeaisons (itching). 

And if you need to explain where you are in pain you can say: "J'ai mal au/a la [insert body part here]"

L'auscultation du cœur, des poumons, des oreilles

This is the phrase for an examination of he heart/lungs/ears. 

La médication

When it comes to prescribing medication, helpfully the same word in French as in English, these are the French words for some of the most common: antibiotiques (antibiotics), anti-inflammatoires (anti-inflammatories) and antalgiques or antidouleurs for painkillers. 

An injection is une piqûre.

Une ordonnance 

The word for prescription and renouveler une ordonnance means to refill a prescription.  


Other words that might come in handy:

Guérir - to cure

Soigner - to treat

Une radio - X-ray


Diagnostic - Diagnosis

Une infection - Infection

And finally, here are a couple of useful phrases to know in case you are asked.

Etes-vous allergique à un médicament en particulier ? Are you allergic to any medications?

Etes-vous allergique aux gants en caoutchouc? Are you allergic to rubber gloves? (latex)


Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2018/06/23 19:32
I am planning to move to France. What happens re la mutuelle if I work part-time, am self employed or retired? Merci

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