Getting Medical Assistance while Abroad

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. ~Erma Bombeck

Medical Assistance while Abroad

Doctors in other countries do not undergo the same type of education that they do in the US. Therefore, it is important to think about whom you might want to see for minor and major medical assistance. Make a list of recommended physicians and hospitals before you leave, or get a list from the embassy after you arrive in the host country. Then decide where you would you go for a minor injury vs. where you would go for something major. If you become seriously ill or injured, a US consular officer can help you locate medical assistance and services, as well as contact family and friends.

When I was in the Peace Corps, I often had to treat myself for illnesses while in the US I would normally see a doctor. This is because I wasn’t able to obtain optimal health care in my remote African village. As a volunteer, I received a book, Where There is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook by David Werner, Carol Thuman, and Jane Maxwell. It is an excellent source of information for identifying and treating both common and rare illnesses. For example, papaya seeds can cure parasites, and natural yogurt (without sugar) can take care of a yeast infection when applied like cream.

Before you leave, you should get enough prescription drugs to last your entire trip. Leave them in their original containers and keep a copy of the prescription on hand. Put these drugs (and the prescriptions) in your carry-on bag, not your checked luggage. Possession of certain drugs without a prescription may violate local laws. Also, bring syringes or other types of instruments that you use to administer your drugs (with a note from your physician of course). In some countries, medical personnel still reuse needles and syringes, which is a cause of HIV infection and other viruses/diseases.

If you get sick abroad and have to go to a medical doctor, he/ she may prescribe something for you to take. You should stick with major in-country pharmacies for these needs. Try to avoid small kiosks that may acquire the drugs illegally. Call the embassy for advice. Find out which pharmacies they use. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot assure the content or quality of pharmaceuticals sold outside of the US. Medications approved for the pharmaceutical market in the US undergo review and rigorous testing that assures they are not only safe, but also effective for a proposed use.

Wherever you decide to study abroad, it’s important that you understand the health care system. In addition to helping you navigate the culture, this information will also help you to make better decisions about the insurance you purchase. The World Health Organization ranks the world’s health systems. France is #1, Italy is #2, Canada is #30, and the US is #37. Another study conducted by Ellen Nolte and Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine compared the trends in preventable deaths among industrialized nations. They rated France, Japan and Australia best and the US worst in preventable deaths due to treatable conditions.

You may receive better care abroad than you otherwise would in the US. Some countries even offer free emergency services to visitors. Italy’s national health system provides low or no-cost health care to all EU citizens, and free emergency health care to all visitors (both EU and non). One of our professors took a very serious fall in Italy while she was leading a study abroad program. Her hospitalization was immediate and high quality, and it was completely free. This doesn’t happen in most countries of the world.

Don’t underestimate the fact that you could become seriously ill or injured while abroad. Especially if you’re studying in a rural location, it is important that you have a good medical evacuation provider. Imagine yourself in a remote area of Costa Rica when you start having severe stomach pain and need to have your appendix removed promptly. Time is your only hope, and if you can’t get someone who can perform a safe surgery for you, then you could lose your life and die. If you allow an unqualified doctor and facility to perform your surgery (such as a primitive health center), then you also run a risk of infection and possible death.

Medical practices vary widely in other countries. My dentist in Africa gave me vodka to swish around in my mouth before he checked my aching wisdom teeth. When I sprained my ankle, I happened to stumble upon a traditional healer and he asked if he could perform a demonstration on me. I unwisely allowed him to rub the fat of a boa constrictor on my joint and squeeze it fiercely. He claimed that by massaging my ankle with the boa fat, it would swell up and therefore heal faster. It still took me more than a month to heal, and I’m not convinced that the boa fat or the massage aided the process. The Peace Corps nurse later reprimanded me for this mistake.

The most important thing to remember is that you maintain access to the highest level of medical assistance and care, should you happen to need it. If you’re in a remote village and a health center can treat your minor ailments, that is okay, but if something goes wrong and you need to have specialized treatment or surgery, you should be able to get it. Visit the following websites for more information:

:: International Association of Medical Assistance to Travelers – Join free.

:: International SOS

:: Med Help International

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