By Rod Moser, PA, PhD
We just came home from three weeks traveling abroad. Thankfully, other than my own age-related physical limitations, we had a trouble-free trip. Last year, I ended up in an Austrian Emergency Room, so we were well-prepared for just about anything this time.
Even the most carefully-planned trip can be ruined by an unexpected medical crisis. So, if you’re heading out on a vacation – especially overseas – there are a few things you might want to make sure to bring to help head off any trouble:
1. Prescription Medications. Many travel experts recommend that you carry written prescriptions or keep them in the original containers, but I am not so sure. We just put our daily dosages of medications in those compartmentalized plastic boxes (available at all pharmacies); enough for each day of the trip and a few extra days. Make sure to wrap the plastic boxes in plastic wrap or a tight plastic bag in case they accidentally pop open in your bags. Write down what you are taking, or get a computer print-out of all of medication, dosages, etc. from your medical provider or pharmacy. Make sure to have the generic names since brand-names tend to be country specific. For instance, you can ask for ibuprofen (generic name) at a foreign pharmacy, but if you ask for Advil or Motrin (brand name), they will look confused and may have to look it up on their computer to find an equivalent. Don’t put all of your medications in one bag in case it is lost or misrouted. Always have some in your carry-on bag. Diabetics on insulin should bring an ample supply, including syringes. If you use an EpiPen (for severe allergies), bring several with you, putting one in each bag (especially your carry-on).
2. Over-the Counter Medications. Don’t just assume you can find your favorite over-the-counter medications in other countries – if there are certain ones you think you can’t live without, you may want bring them with you. Try to avoid bringing a huge (heavy) bottle of liquid antacids, for instance, since the TSA frowns on any liquid containers over 3 ounces. We even had a little hassle since our containers do not actually have the words: “three ounces” or 100 ml. If you think you can buy equivalent over-the-counter medications at your foreign destination, don’t carry them. You will find foreign pharmacists well-trained and helpful. Many have the authority to prescribe (even your prescriptions). Language can be a minor barrier (especially medical language) but in most cases, pharmacists will figure it out for you.
3. Medical Information: Have the name, e-mail, phone numbers, etc. of your doctors with you. If you don’t carry a cell phone that works in a foreign country, at least have a Skype account that you can use to make inexpensive calls if needed. Make sure you have a list of any drug allergies or special medical needs. Carry copies of your medical insurance cards. It is a good idea to check with your insurance company BEFORE you travel, to inquire what you are to do should you need medical care at your destination. Make sure your Social Security number (you should have it memorized anyway) is blacked out on any copy. Don’t ever carry your original Social Security card.
4. Money and Credit Cards. Carry at least two different credit or ATM cards, and protect them with your life! Some charge a foreign transaction fee; some do not. I had to use an emergency room, so they required that I pay the “usual” co-payment up front. They took a credit card and provided a receipt that I could use for possible reimbursement once I returned home. As a rule, medical care out of the country is not as expensive as going to an American emergency room or pharmacy. It took about a month or so before I was sent a bill for the remaining care. It took about four months more before my own insurance company reimbursed me. The paperwork and hassle at home was worse than the ER experience.
5. Travel Insurance: I didn’t get extra insurance this time, since the insurance I used last year ended up to be worthless. Be sure to read the fine print, as many travel health policies are “secondary” insurances and only kick in what your regular health insurance doesn’t pay (minus a deductible). I suspect some travel insurance companies may be good, but mine was not. If you do get extra insurance, do your homework.
Plan your trip well. Pack light, but thoroughly. And have a great vacation!