Australia, by world standards, is one of the healthiest nations in the world. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the life satisfaction rate in Australia is 6.7 out of a possible 10 and citizens enjoy a life expectancy of 83.2 years.

With most things in life, health needs to be cared for and maintained through good habits and regular check-ups with doctors and specialists. If you are working and living in Australia, you will have to consult a primary care physician (known as a General Practitioner or GP) from time to time.

If you aren’t a citizen or permanent resident, how can you get medical care – and most importantly, how does it work and how much will it cost? We’ll show you how to keep healthy while living in Australia.

Australian healthcare – public and private mixture

Australian health care is a system that has a mix of single payer (government funded) health care and private health care. This is administered by what’s known as Medicare. Medicare in effect reimburses doctors or allied health professionals for services rendered using the Medicare Benefits Schedule. The government sets the price for certain procedures, such as routine doctors’ visits and the doctor “bulk bills” for their services via Medicare. Many doctors offices will display “bulk billing” on their signage.

Just because a doctor bulk bills doesn’t mean you’re unable to consult them as a non-citizen – you will just have to pay a different rate than others.

Unlike other single payer systems, doctors are not forced to accept the bulk billing rate for their services – and can choose to opt out of bulk billing. Doctors may set their own prices, while patients are reimbursed for the service in the Medicare Benefits Schedule (the “scheduled fee.”) For example, a GP could charge $80 for a standard consultation (Item #23) which you pay immediately after the session. You are then reimbursed the standard fee of $39.10 by Medicare. The difference is known as “the gap.”

The MBS has schedules for almost all procedures in hospital and GPs offices. However, Medicare is only offered to citizens, permanent residents, and special visa classes. If you are not in these categories, you will have to pay for the entire consultation or procedure out of pocket, which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Private health insurance

Many Australians opt to take out private health insurance to ensure lower wait times and higher quality of care. The Australian Government also gives citizens a tax break for taking out private health insurance, to lower pressure on the public system. Australians usually pay a monthly premium for hospital cover and optional “extras” such as optometry, dental, and physiotherapy.

Private insurance works in the same way as Medicare – you go to see a doctor or specialist and you are reimbursed afterward via your health fund. In extreme cases such as immediate hospitalisation you may have to pay what’s known as an “excess” – a lump sum that contributes to your hospital claim. You can opt for a higher excess to make your premiums lower, and vice versa. This is usually the best option for expats and travellers.

Expats, tourists, and travellers

If you are an expatriate, you should be aware of your options when it comes to health insurance. Tourists coming to Australia may want to take out temporary travel insurance to cover medical emergencies. If you are coming for extended periods such as study or work, you may want to look into overseas health cover. You should know what your health fund covers, so you aren’t caught out paying the “gap” or completely out of pocket. At minimum, it should cover GP visits, hospital stays, and any ongoing concerns, such as optometry (glasses) or even mental health (psychology).

Keeping healthy in Australia is important, so read up on the various health funds and medical care options that may be available to you if you plan to visit or stay.