Navigating the System: When You’re Traveling Abroad
When making plans to travel abroad, many people don’t consider how they will access healthcare if a medical problem or emergency occurs. Healthcare systems vary drastically from country to country, and many people are not covered by their health insurance when traveling outside the US. By taking steps to plan for healthy travel before you depart and knowing what to do should a medical issue arise while abroad, you can help avoid potential healthcare problems during your trip.
Plan Before You Travel
At least 4-6 weeks before your departure, see your physician, local health department, or other clinic that provides health information for
Another good resource for international travelers is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Travelers’ Health website. On this site, you can find out about precautionary notices issued for your destination. These notices can provide you with recommendations of precautions to take if a disease outbreak has occurred in that region, advice on what to do if you become ill while in the area of the outbreak, and whether there is a recommendation from the CDC against traveling there.
If you aren’t feeling well when it’s time for you to travel, you should consider postponing your trip if possible. Traveling while you are ill can be extremely unpleasant and lead to serious emergencies if your condition worsens. In addition, people who travel while they are sick with an infection risk exposing fellow travelers to their illness. You can purchase cancellation insurance when you first book your trip that will allow you to postpone travel in the case of illness. Read the cancellation policy carefully to make sure it will cover the cancellation in the case of illness.
If you have a pre-existing medical condition, get a note from your doctor detailing your medical needs and any medications you are taking. When you pack your medications, leave them in their original containers and avoid checking them, since you will not have access to them if your luggage becomes lost.
Health Insurance Abroad
Before you depart, check to see if your health insurance will cover your care if you become sick overseas. Read the policy carefully for exclusions and talk to your insurance agent if you have any questions. While some policies cover emergencies during travel, most do not cover exacerbations of pre-existing medical conditions. If your insurance covers your healthcare while abroad, be sure to bring a copy of your insurance card and claim forms with you.
If your insurance policy does not offer the kind of protection you need while outside the US, consider purchasing a supplemental insurance policy through a private provider.
If you have Medicare, it is important to know that the basic, original Medicare Plan does not pay for healthcare or supplies outside the US in most situations. Some plans in the Medicare Advantage program will provide healthcare outside the US. In addition, supplemental insurance policies may include foreign travel emergency health coverage when traveling abroad. To find out if you are covered, call Medicare or your insurance agent.
If the Unexpected Happens
If you unexpectedly need healthcare while traveling overseas, contact the nearest US consulate or embassy. A US consular officer can assist you in locating the medical services you need, as well as notifying your friends, family, or employer of your situation. Since healthcare professionals in most countries require cash or credit card payment at the time you receive the service, the officer can also assist you in transferring funds from the US if necessary.
Other resources that can help you locate appropriate medical services include:
- The clinic where you received pre-travel health advice
- Embassies and consulates of other countries
- Hotel doctors
- Major credit card companies
- US Department of State website’s Lists of Doctors/Hospitals Abroad
Bureau of Consular Affairs
US Department of State
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Websites of US Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions
US Department of State
Advisories and International Reports
Public Health Agency of Canada
Essential Information for Canadians Abroad
Medical information for Americans traveling abroad. US Department of State website. Available at: http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/health/health_1185.html. Accessed August 27, 2008.
Medicare coverage outside the US. Medicare website. Available at: http://www.medicare.gov/Publications/Pubs/pdf/11037.pdf. Updated March 2008. Accessed August 27, 2008.
Planning for healthy travel. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www2.ncid.cdc.gov/travel/yb/utils/ybGet.asp?section=recs&obj=plan-travel.htm. Updated June 2007. Accessed August 27, 2008.
Seeking healthcare abroad. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.ncid.cdc.gov/travel/yb/utils/ybGet.asp?section=recs&obj=care-abroad.htm. Updated June 2007. Accessed August 27, 2008.
Last reviewed June 2010 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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