When planning a vacation abroad, the last thing you want to imagine is having to go to the hospital. But it’s important to expect the unexpected and plan for the possibility of an emergency.
“Unfamiliar areas, exotic foods, insect-borne illnesses and adventurous activities can all lead to illness or injury,” E. Patricia Gill, an infectious disease and travel medicine specialist in Longmont, Colorado, told HuffPost. “Accidents happen. Nearly half of all medical evacuations back to the United States are the result of a car crash, and emergency care and trauma centers are uncommon outside urban areas.”
HuffPost asked Gill and other experts how travelers can be proactive before their trip and what they should know about seeking medical attention in a foreign country.
“Being prepared for these types of situations can alleviate some of the stress should travelers, and/or their companions, find themselves needing to go to the hospital,” said Robert Quigley, a surgeon and senior vice president at the medical and travel support companies International SOS and MedAire.
Here’s how to prepare for the possibility of hospitalization abroad and what to do if the situation arises.
Go To The Doctor Beforehand
“Prevention is always better than treatment,” said Gill, who recommends visiting a travel medicine clinic and discussing your itinerary and health to get personalized advice, immunizations and preventative medicines.
“You may be given medications for early self treatment of diarrhea or medicine for prevention or treatment of altitude illness,” she said. “You can discuss prevention of blood clots, protection against bug bites, safe food choices and many other potential health issues.”
“Being prepared for these types of situations can alleviate some of the stress should travelers, and or their companions find themselves needing to go to the hospital.”
Gill also noted that other countries may have different standards of sanitation and sterility than what we’re accustomed to in the U.S., so it’s important to be immunized, particularly against hepatitis B which is passed by blood and other bodily fluids.
Stock Up On Meds
Your pre-travel doctor visit is a good time to get a refill of your prescriptions and stock up on medication for the trip. Daphne Hendsbee, a communications and marketing specialist at the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT), recommends getting extra meds and keeping them in the original, labelled containers.
“Check with the foreign embassy of the country you are visiting or transiting [through] to make sure your medications are permitted in that country,” she advised.
Check Your Insurance
Travelers should investigate if they need travel health or evacuation insurance, as many health insurance plans don’t provide coverage out of the country.
“Make sure that you take copies of your insurance card and insurance company contact information,” said Quigley. “Your insurance company may have additional information for you, including the requirement to purchase excess coverage. This is particularly important if you have an underlying mental health disorder.”
“Depending on your policy, you may have to seek care from the doctors and hospitals in the insurer’s network,” Hendsbee noted. “Make sure you’re covered for any preexisting conditions and find out if they have a preferred provider network.”
Research Your Destination
Quigley recommended researching your destination’s healthcare infrastructure and what medical care is offered in different areas, particularly rural ones. Travelers can also research any endemic diseases, as well as best practices against contracting them.
“Before traveling to any foreign destination, make sure to identify the nearest hospital and learn whether it is in a neighborhood with any security concerns,” he advised, adding that insurance companies and travel assistance providers can share this information. “This not only notifies them in advance, but oftentimes, they are able to offer additional insight into emergency advice and best practices to stay safe.”
It may also be useful to learn about local laws and culture, like basic driving practices.
Print Your Documents
“If you have a medical condition or are taking prescription medication, travel with a letter from your health practitioner that includes the generic and brand name of your medication, the condition being treated, the dosage, and details of any medical devices or supplies if needed. If possible, have the letter translated into your destination country’s language,” said Hendsbee.
“Having documentation for medical conditions and prescriptions will help facilitate treatment at your destination,” she continued. “Carry a card that identifies — in the local language — your blood type, any chronic illnesses you have, medications you take (including their generic names) and any allergies you have.”
“If possible, have a friend or family member stay with you to help with communication and personal care.”
Quigley noted that travelers should also have printed copies of their passports, health insurance cards and travel insurance information both in their luggage and back at home with a trusted loved one. He also advised carrying papers with lists of emergency contacts, allergies, any current or chronic illnesses, and contact information for your primary care physician and/or travel doctor.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Department offer advice for medical care while traveling abroad. Travelers can also register with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive emergency updates and other resources. U.S. embassies can assist in locating medical care and contacting loved ones at home, so it’s helpful to learn where embassies are located and how to contact them.
Travel assistance hotlines can also be instrumental in finding medical services and communicating with healthcare professionals who may not speak English. IAMAT’s medical directory also helps travelers locate English-speaking doctors and, when in doubt, university hospitals tend to offer reliable medical care with specialists and have English-speaking doctors.
Have A Friend Stay With You
If you’re not traveling solo, don’t go to the hospital alone.
“If possible, have a friend or family member stay with you to help with communication and personal care,” said Gill. “This person should also have a copy of your important medical and insurance information.”
Take Out Cash
Having cash in the local currency is a smart move while traveling in general, and it can be particularly useful in a medical situation.
“Many locations require cash or a guarantee of payment upfront, regardless of the seriousness of your condition,” said Quigley.
Keep Your Records
If you find yourself receiving medical care abroad, be sure to keep copies of any receipts or invoices for hospital care or tests.
“If you have to pay out of pocket, you may be required to submit these documents to your insurer when you file a claim,” said Hendsbee.
“Ask for a copy of your medical record when you are discharged, including discharge summary, lab results and imaging results,” Gill advised.
The story of your medical issue abroad doesn’t end after your trip is over.
“If you had to go to the hospital during your trip, follow up with your family doctor when you get home so they are aware of any new medical issues or changes in medication,” said Hendsbee.