Medical practices abroad may be very different than those you're used to at home, and language barriers can make matters worse. Between these factors and the fact that a new doctor won't be familiar with your medical history, it's crucial to prepare as much as possible for medical emergencies.
The following tips, contact information, medication names and additional resources will help you find health care abroad and deal with medical needs both minor and critical.
Learn About Your Destination
If you aren't familiar with the country you're visiting, the U.S. State Department's Consular Information Sheets are a good place to start to see what type of medical services will be available to you once you're there. Select your country and look for "Medical Facilities and Health Information." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has destination-specific health information.
Check Your Insurance
Before you travel, call your health insurance provider to see what coverage, if any, you will have in the destinations you're visiting. Some insurance companies will not cover injuries or illness outside your home country, while others require that you pay for any treatment up front and then apply for reimbursement after you get home. If you're not satisfied with the coverage available to you, look into purchasing a travel insurance policy that will cover health care and emergency medical evacuation.
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Collect Health Care Contact Information Before You Leave
Keep the following information with you at all times:
- Your regular doctor's office, home and/or cell phone numbers in case you need a consultation while traveling
- HMO/insurance company contact information in case you need to get approval for treatment (don't forget your insurance card)
- Travel insurance company contact information, if applicable
- Embassy contact info for countries in which you are traveling
Also, ask your doctor for a contact name and number in the event of an emergency that occurs outside of his or her regular office hours.
All of this information should be with your primary identification in your carry-on luggage, wallet, purse or money belt so that, should you be incapacitated, whoever comes to your assistance will find it. If you have serious allergies or a medical condition such as diabetes, be sure to ask your doctor about medical emergency bracelets.
Know the Generic Names of Your Medications
Common brand names at home may not be available or widely known where you are traveling. It's a good idea to bring along a list of any medications you're currently taking, but be sure to include the scientific name as well as the brand name (such as atorvastatin calcium for Lipitor or esomeprazole for Nexium).
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Knowing the generic/medical names of common medications is also helpful when you're hunting for over-the-counter remedies in a foreign country. We recommend packing a range of common travel medications in a first-aid kit before you leave, but if you need to replenish your supplies while traveling, keep in mind the following generic medication names:
- Advil/Motrin = ibuprofen
- Aleve = naproxen
- Tylenol/Excedrin = acetaminophen
- Bayer, others = aspirin
- Benadryl = diphenhydramine
- Dramamine = dimenhydrinate
- Bonine = meclizine
- Pepto-Bismol = bismuth subsalicylate
- Antacids = calcium carbonate, aluminum hydroxide or magnesium hydroxide
- Imodium = loperamide
Because it can be difficult or even impossible to get prescription medications when traveling in remote locations, we recommend bringing enough extra medication to tide you over in case of flight delays or other occurrences that might unexpectedly extend your trip.
Medical Assistance Companies
Membership in a medical assistance company buys you access to an extremely wide range of medical and other services, from the mundane (vaccination recommendations, doctor referrals, legal advice) to the dramatic (repatriation, emergency evacuations).
Plans, services and prices can vary widely, so read all information carefully, and compare the various service levels and companies. A few recommended medical assistance companies include InternationalSOS.com, OnCallInternational.com and TravelAssistance.com.
Locating Doctors and Clinics While Traveling Abroad
The U.S. State Department provides a list of doctors and hospitals abroad. The nearest embassy or consulate in your destination should also have recommendations. Finally, check your guidebook -- many include hospital, clinic or doctor recommendations.
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Especially at upscale lodgings, ask the hotel concierge for physician recommendations. Some doctors will make "house calls" to your hotel. Alternatively, your best bet may be to contact the nearest medical school, where you will often find English-speaking doctors and students.
If you travel frequently, you may wish to look into becoming a member of the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT). Membership is free and grants you access to a database of English-speaking doctors and clinics around the world. See iamat.org.
Obtain Information at Your Location
If you are sick or injured, ask for complete contact information (including a fax number) of the hospital or clinic at which you're being treated before you call your doctor or insurance provider. Having this information will make it easier for your provider to process your claim and to fax pertinent documentation to your caregivers.
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