In the first part of our series on medical concerns for travelers, we discussed all the preparations you can make to help you avoid health problems while traveling internationally. But sometimes, no matter how well you’ve prepared, accidents can happen and illnesses can strike without warning. This week, we’ll go over what you need to know to take care of medical issues overseas.
Getting Help for Minor Illnesses and Injuries
Minor ailments that might be just an inconvenience at home can put a real damper on your trip. A sore throat, bad sunburn, or constipation might not be enough to have you seeking out a doctor, but will still need to be addressed. In many cases, your first stop should be a pharmacy.
In the US, we’re used to large chain drug stores that sell a wide variety of goods that include food, toys, and household supplies in addition to health and beauty items, and to finding pharmacy counters inside grocery stores and discount superstores. Although you may find some large chain pharmacies on your travels – the famous Boots stores in the United Kingdom come to mind – you’re more likely to find pharmacies that are small stores focused on dispensing medications and selling health care items. Large or small, a pharmacy will be your best bet if you need to pick up first aid items like bandages or burn cream or if you need over-the-counter medications like painkillers or antacids.
When shopping for medications, it’s helpful to know the generic name of the medicine you want, rather than looking for a brand name. For example, if you have a headache, you’re far more likely to find medicine labeled “ibuprofen” than “Motrin” or “Advil.” Make sure to read the packaging to confirm the dosage, as common medicines like this may be sold in stronger or weaker concentrations than in the US.
Pharmacies overseas also vary widely in whether or not there is a trained, licensed pharmacist available. In Mexico, for example, the person behind the pharmacy desk is likely to just be a clerk, not an actual pharmacist. But in Europe, you’ll always find a pharmacist on duty, and European pharmacists act a lot more like doctors than their American counterparts. They are able to consult with patients and prescribe medications for many common maladies like ear infections, fevers, urinary tract infections, and muscle aches. If your problem is one that is beyond the scope of their care, they will refer you on to see a doctor or go to a hospital.
Finding the Right Doctor
You’re sick enough to need to see a doctor, but you’re thousands of miles away from your own primary care physician. You’ll want to find a doctor who is convenient, reputable, and who speaks English – you don’t want to struggle with a language barrier when you are trying to describe your symptoms or understand the explanation of your treatment! There are a number of ways you can get referrals to a local doctor. If you’ve purchased travel insurance, you can call the company’s help line for assistance in finding a local doctor. Another option, if you’re staying at a hotel, is to ask the hotel concierge or desk staff. They should have a list of doctors who are available to treat travelers, and might even be able to arrange for a doctor to make a house call to your hotel room. You can also contact the nearest US Embassy or Consulate to request a list of local doctors they recommend.
Another option is to join the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT). Membership is free – although they request donations – and gives you access to a network of Western-trained, English-speaking doctors around the world. Even better, the doctors in the IAMAT network charge standardized fees to members, so you’ll know ahead of time what you can expect to pay.
Hospital Care Overseas
US residents are accustomed to high-quality, high-tech hospitals. However, according to World Health Organization rankings, the United States isn’t the country with the world’s best hospitals! That honor goes to France, followed by Italy. You’ll find excellent hospitals across Europe, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and in oil-rich Gulf states like Oman and United Arab Emirates. In Asia, Japan and Singapore are known for having the best hospitals and health care systems. In Latin America, you’ll find well-respected health care systems in Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica.
In general, wealthy and well-developed nations tend to offer good medical care in their hospitals, but even less wealthy nations may have excellent medical staff in their hospitals, although they might not offer luxuries like private rooms or televisions for patients. No matter where in the world you are, you are more likely to have access to a reputable hospital if you are in a major city or tourist resort area than if you are in an impoverished, undeveloped, or rural area.
Calling for an Ambulance
In an emergency, your first thought might be, “dial 911!” If you’re in North or South America, dialing 911 will work in many countries to call an ambulance. In addition to the United States, 911 is the emergency services number in Canada, Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, the Bahamas and many other Caribbean nations.
Across the globe, the most common emergency services numbers are 911, 112, and 999. We’ve listed the numbers for some popular destinations below.
- United Kingdom: 999
- European Union: 112
- Australia: 000
- Jamaica: 110
- Mexico: 065 (ambulance) or 066 (any type of emergency)
- Brazil: 192
- China: 120 (ambulance)
- India: 102 (ambulance)
Medical Care on Cruise Ships
A medical issue can be scary at the best of times, but having a medical problem at sea, hundreds of miles from land, can be downright terrifying. But don’t worry – all major cruise ships have their own medical clinics aboard, staffed with doctors and nurses. These onboard medical clinics are able to treat the majority of illnesses and injuries suffered by cruise passengers. In a life-threatening emergency, the medical clinic has equipment to help stabilize the patient until he can reach land and be transported to a hospital. A serious emergency would be cause for a cruise ship to change course so they can get a sick passenger to port as soon as possible.
Medical Evacuation and Medical Reunions
In a major health crisis, you may need to transported to a different country for treatment, or you may need to cancel the rest of your travel plans and return to the United States early. This might be as simple as arranging for a new ticket on a commerical airline and providing a wheelchair for you to use in the airport, or it could be a complex operation involving air ambulances, medical equipment and staff. It’s important to make sure that the travel insurance policy you choose includes benefits for medical evacuation, so you won’t be stuck with the bill for a costly and painful return home.
Another benefit that your travel insurance may offer is Emergency Medical Reunion coverage. If you wind up critically injured or hospitalized overseas for more than 7 days, your travel insurer will pay for a designated friend or family member to travel to join you. This is a particularly important benefit to look for if you are a parent planning to send your child on an international trip without you!
Who Pays for Your Medical Care Overseas?
Be prepared to pay out-of-pocket for any medical care you receive while traveling outside the United States. Even if you have travel insurance or if your health insurance policy offers international benefits, you will need to pay the bills up front and then submit them to your insurance company later for reimbursement. Make sure to keep copies of all your medical bills!
We hope your travels are happy, healthy, and safe!