An increasing number of people around the globe travel every year for a multitude of reasons: They travel for leisure and business, go on educational trips and pilgrimages or visit their relatives and friends.
As the number of travellers rises, so does the number of people who need medical attention while travelling. Even if your preparations were impeccable, you can suddenly find yourself in a situation where you need help.
But it is not only in emergency situations that medical treatment abroad can become necessary: For travellers with pre-existing conditions it may be imperative to know beforehand, whether adequate medical care will be available at their travel destination.
Whether you plan for a city trip over the weekend or an arduous expedition to the remoter areas of our planet, take a few moments to think about your health before you set out.
Are you in good health right now? An aching tooth can possibly wait over the weekend before it needs medical attention, but it can certainly ruin even the shortest trip. If you are in doubt about your current state of health, it maybe advisable to see your doctor before you travel.
Are you fit enough? Even if you plan a holiday with a low level of activity, a different climate, high altitude or unfamiliar food will put an additional strain on you – physically and psychologically.
Especially if you plan a trip with a high level of activity, prepare yourself thoroughly before you go. A lack of fitness can result in emergency situations under adverse conditions.
Get information about your travel destination: What is the climate like? Will you need vaccinations? What are the most common health risks? Is tap water safe to drink? Will the medication you need be available at your destination? A good guide book will already answer many of your questions. You can get more information from national tourist boards, traveller networks, institutes for tropical medicine and hygiene or physicians who specialise in travel medicine. On our link page you will find a list of helpful websites.
Start your preparations early: Especially if you need to get a vaccination or if malaria prophylaxis is recommended, it may be necessary to start your preparations several weeks before you leave. But it is not only health issues that can be time consuming: Have you checked the validity of your passport? Will you need to apply for a visa?
Talk to your general practitioner: This may not be necessary before your next weekend trip, but if you are heading to a country with an unfamiliar climate or a less developed infrastructure, make an appointment with your doctor or a physician who specialises in travel medicine. Tell him or her where exactly you are going and when, how you are travelling (organised bus trip, independent backpacker tour), what activities you plan (sports, contact with animals etc.) and discuss any pre-existing conditions you might have. Your doctor will recommend vaccinations if necessary and help you put together a first aid kit with some basic medications.
Check out your health insurance: Your health insurance at home usually does not (or at least not fully) cover the cost of treatments and medication abroad.
There are some exceptions, though: If you live and travel within the European Union, your country might have a social security agreement with the country you are travelling to. In this case, necessary treatment that is covered by your insurance at home, will also be paid for abroad. Ask your insurance company, if that is the case and how the procedures are. Many member states of the EU have introduced the so-called “EHIC (European Health Insurance Card)”, which facilitates easier access to the respective national health care systems for European travellers. There are also some bilateral agreements with non-EU countries (Switzerland and others). The following link provides useful information: http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/healthcard/index_en.htm
For other countries it is advisable to have a travel health insurance, which is offered by many private and travel insurance companies and often sold through automobile clubs, tour operators and travel agencies. Check the details of the insurance policy: Some offer emergency evacuation/ repatriation only if “medically necessary”, others also cover cases when repatriation is deemed “beneficial” or “expedient”. Prefer an insurance policy that offers a 24h assistance service (not all of them do). Usually you will have to pay for treatments and medication abroad in cash or by credit card and then present the receipts to your insurance company for reimbursement. In some cases, especially if you need in-patient treatment at a foreign hospital, the insurance company will give the hospital a loan guarantee.
Assume responsibility for your well-being: Especially travellers from well developed countries are often used to “be taken care of”. In our home countries we very much rely on established support systems: “Professional help” is always close at hand, we know the procedures and feel safe.
Suddenly falling ill or having an accident in a region that has no such system and/ or where you do not speak the language can be a frightful experience. The better you are prepared, the calmer you will handle the situation.
These are the 10 golden rules:
- Prepare early and collect information about your travel destination.
- Have a health check up, get necessary vaccinations and take prophylactic drugs consistently.
- Get a travel health insurance that covers repatriation and offers 24h assistance.
- Eat and drink only what is considered “safe” in the respective region
(e.g.: Follow the “boil it, peel it, cook it or forget it”-rule for all tropical countries, avoid ice-cubes, salads and fresh milk products).
- Protect yourself against mosquito bites (use repellents, wear light colours, sleep under mosquito nets).
- Protect yourself against sexually transmitted diseases (use condoms).
- Stay out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day, use sunscreen, wear a sun hat or cap and sun glasses.
- Ask trustworthy locals for advice before bathing in unknown waters, climbing mountains or engaging in other potentially risky activities.
- Bring your own first aid kit and some basic medication. If you suffer from any condition that requires regular medication, make sure to pack enough medicine for your trip and store it in different places (in your hand luggage and in your suitcase). If it is prescription only medicine, hold some form of documentation to prove your doctor has prescribed the drugs.
- Keep important telephone numbers (emergency call, insurance company, embassy) and documents (passport, insurance card, vaccination card) close to your body and store copies somewhere else (e.g. your suitcase, the hotel safe, your webmail-box on the internet).
If you follow these simple rules and also read our section “What to do in case of an emergency”, you will be better prepared than most. Enjoy your trip!
What to do in case of an emergency:
Will you be able to think clearly and act calmly in a crisis? Very few of us can. But you can prepare yourself now. It is easy, and does not take a lot of time. The following simple suggestions will help you react appropriately in case you or your fellow travellers fall ill or have an accident.
» Before you set out, check the TEMOS database for hospitals / medical centres at your destination. Take a list of the selected contacts with you. We strongly recommend that you have a travel health insurance, preferably with a 24h assistance service, but you should not rely on this alone.
» Carry the following phone numbers with you close to your body (as you do with your money) and save them to your mobile phone.
- local emergency call (112 for most of Europe, 999 for the UK etc.)
- numbers of hospitals at your travel destination
- telephone number of your embassy
- assistance number of your travel health insurance
- person to contact in case of an emergency
» If you need medical attention abroad, call the assistance number of your travel health insurance and let them help you with the procedures. Thus, you can avoid extra costs that are not covered by your insurance policy.
» If you are on an organized trip, let your tour guide know that you will seek medical attention. Your guide may even be able to assist and translate for you, but be aware, that in some countries guides get commissions from certain doctors or health centres.
» If you find yourself in an emergency situation, where you or your fellow travellers need medical attention immediately, call the local emergency number and remember the “5 Ws”:
- Who are you? - What has happened?f - Where has it happened? - Who and how many are injured or missing? - Wait for questions (don’t hang up)!
If you don’t speak the language, try to find someone who does and let him or her make the call (e.g. your tour guide, the receptionist at the hotel).
In some big cities it is advisable not to wait for an ambulance (as it will need too much time), but to take a taxi. If you can tell the driver exactly, where you want to be taken (find hospitals here), you avoid being brought to a place that pays commissions to taxi drivers.
» If you have been taken to a local hospital after an accident, call your travel health insurance as soon as possible or let your travel companion make the call. Before you make the call, prepare the following: Ask for the name of the hospital and the doctor who is in charge of your case. Have your insurance-ID and a telephone number ready so that your insurance company can call you back (e.g. number of the hospital + extension of your ward or mobile number of your travel companion). Have a pen and paper ready to take notes.
» Do not rely on the hospital to make this first call for you. Do it yourself or entrust it to someone you know.
» Do not sign any documents, especially not cost absorptions, and do not agree to any further treatment before you have talked to your travel health insurance or be prepared to pay for it yourself.
» Insist on a proper receipt and a medical report for any payment you make. Make sure it contains at least a purpose (preferably in English) and the currency it is issued in.
» Be watchful, but do not let panic or mistrust ruin your holiday. Most of the people you meet will be genuinely friendly and willing to help.
Most travellers, who seek medical attention abroad each year, get a good appropriate treatment and return to their home countries without any complications. By preparing yourself for your trip and for potential emergencies you have already done your best to be one of them.