How to Seek Medical Attention Abroad

Jul 6, 2015

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Being sick at home is the pits, but when you’re thousands of miles away, it can be downright scary. TPG Contributor Christine Cantera gives you advice on how to seek medical attention abroad.

Major Medical Emergencies

Both as a physician and a traveler, Dr. Alan Cherney, who specializes in Emergency Medicine, recommends consulting the State Department website for any health emergency. “The State Department’s website is an underused resource,” says Dr. Cherney. “They have up-to-date information on epidemics. Some of it is overblown, but particularly with respiratory epidemics, it can let you know what to look for.”

According to the US State Department:

Consult the nearest Embassy’s website for a list of hospitals and doctors in your location overseas. Your hotel concierge may also be a good resource. The availability and quality of medical services available can vary greatly depending on your location. Read the Medical Facilities and Health Information section in our Country Specific Information pages. Review our Medical Insurance page for information about medical coverage abroad, air ambulances, and medical evacuation companies. Limited emergency medical funding assistance may be available on a reimbursable (loan) basis for temporarily destitute U.S. citizens and their qualified dependents.

Dr. Cherney recommends contacting the embassy ahead of time to get a correct translation of any pre-existing conditions you may have, so that if worse comes to worst, you won’t have to scramble for an explanation. However, in a pinch, “one of the most important things to have is a list of medications you’re taking, generic names especially,” explains Dr. Cherney. “It can go a long way in explaining what your current medical status is, even if there is a language barrier.”

Photo courtesy of <a href="">Shutterstock</a>
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

In the hospital where Dr. Cherney practices Emergency Medicine, there is “24/7 interpreter coverage in Spanish and French, and from 8am until about midnight there is coverage in more than 20 languages.” He went on to say that in the top 10-15 developed countries, there will be either formal interpreter services or the staff will know English. “In far less developed countries, obviously, this will be a greater challenge,” he said.

Being Insured for Health Emergencies Abroad

First, check with your health insurance provider. Obviously each provider will have its own coverage terms, but the average looks more or less like Blue Cross and Blue Shield — they cover casual, frequent and long-term travelers, and expats, crew members and missionaries. It’s best to check in again with them immediately before traveling, and to have non-toll-free numbers available should you need them (as toll-free doesn’t work from overseas unless stipulated).

If you don’t love your provider’s coverage or you’d like some other options, see which of your credit cards come with trip protection that include health emergencies. Usually this means that you’d have had to pay with that card in order to receive these benefits while traveling, so it can be tricky if you’re also looking to use a certain card for miles, points or redemption.

Photo courtesy of <a href="">Shutterstock</a>
If you don’t have travel insurance, be sure to travel with credit and cash on hand in case of a medical emergency. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

There are also specific travel health insurance providers that will give you coverage for the length of your trip, or even for extended lengths if you’re traveling often over a period of time. Providers like International Medical Group (IMG) offer insurance international medical packages for short-term and long-term trips, individual and group trips, teachers and students working/studying abroad and more.

Then there’s the “wing it” option, which if you’re in fine physical shape can get you through a minor medical rough patch. As The Points Guy recounted in his review of the W Beijing Hotel Chang’an, a concierge was able to help him and his travel companion connect with and translate for a dentist during an emergency root canal, which cost about $400. And personally, when I thought I may have had a gall stone in France, my visit to a private doctor, an immediate sonogram and results, medication and a follow-up appointment were all completed within 10 hours and cost 170 (about $190) total.

More often than not, seeking medical attention from a local pharmacist is a sound option — rather than a sketchy choice. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
More often than not, seeking medical attention from a local pharmacist is a sound option — rather than a sketchy choice. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Minor Medical Emergencies

If you have a minor emergency — for instance, you require a wrap for a sprained ankle or encounter stomach problems — then a pharmacy is going to be your best friend. Unlike in the US — where we’re used to thinking of pharmacies as one-stop shops where you can also get prescriptions filled — pharmacies in much of the rest of the world are the first defense when it comes to all but major injuries and illnesses.

At a foreign pharmacy, instead of browsing the aisles (because there usually aren’t any), you simply wait your turn and then explain what’s ailing you (as effectively as you can) to a highly trained pharmacist who can gauge your symptoms, directly provide you with all manner of ointments, creams and pills — for which you can pay out of pocket — and then send you on your way. In addition, pharmacies tend to know local doctors well, so they can even recommend one to you. This relatively immediate, in-person access to medical advice can be a godsend.

Though it’s now our hope that you feel more at ease about how to handle a medical emergency while abroad, if you have a pre-existing condition and still feel anxious about traveling, know that Dr. Cherney recommends visiting your doctor before any trip. “Your doctor can tell you about symptoms to look for, and give you advice that’s specific to you,” he said. Consider this extra insurance for your peace of mind.

Have you ever had a medical emergency abroad? What course of action did you take?

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