How to Deal With Medical Issues Abroad

In Depth

Picture this: You’re walking through a remote Vietnamese village when you feel the telltale itch of a yeast infection. Or you’re uncontrollably spewing from both ends after drinking some tainted water in Guatemala. Either way, you’re abroad and in need of a doctor, and you don’t know what do to.

Lucky for you, Flygirl spoke with two travel experts — Lonely Planet writer Sara Benson and John Taylor, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the U.S. Department of State — and asked them how to handle insurance, find a decent doctor, and deal with prescriptions in foreign lands.

Here’s how to deal with basic medical care abroad.

Buy insurance before you leave home.

If you have insurance, it’s important to call your provider before your trip to see what your plan will cover out of the country. If your plan doesn’t extend overseas, or you don’t have insurance to begin with, you still have options.

“Before you leave, the best thing you can do, honestly, is buy travel insurance that covers medical,” Benson said. “If you’re going to a country that has free universal healthcare, like Canada, you may not have to pay for doctors, but there will be supplemental costs, i.e. if you have a medical evacuation.”

Travel companies Lonely Planet and Rough Guides sell travel insurance via their websites, while budget or youth travel agencies are good tools for finding travel insurance plans, as well. The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs also has a comprehensive list of travel insurance providers.

Unfortunately, if you find yourself in need of medical attention abroad without having sorted out your insurance beforehand, you are most likely shit out of luck and won’t be able to find a provider that will sell you a plan at the last minute. But luckily, for the most part, medical care in developing countries is pretty inexpensive.

“Generally the foreign countries I travel in are pretty cheap, so just going to the hospital and seeing the head doctor or the head gynecologist isn’t that expensive,” Benson said. “It’s just going to be $25, less than my copay here in the U.S.”

Ask for doctor recommendations.

When it comes to finding a doctor abroad, one of the easiest tools out there is to consult your local embassy or consulate. “All of our embassies and consulates abroad do have lists of physicians they can provide and often they will note which ones have English language ability and proficiency,” Taylor said. “Those lists are available on the Internet, too.”

If you’re in a place that has English schools staffed by foreigners, boasts lots of international travelers and high-end hotels, or has a large expat population, you can opt to ask around for personal recommendations instead. “One time when I was backpacking and I got sick,” said Benson. “I walked into the local Mandarin Oriental branch and asked the concierge for a recommendation, and he didn’t care if I was staying there or not. He was just happy to give out the information.”

The reliability of the medical care you’ll be getting varies depending on where you are, according to Benson. In Europe or North America, you’re more likely to find great care from general physicians than in a remote village in Southeast Asia. If you’re in the middle of nowhere, try to make your way to a major city or check out the local English-speaking hospital. According to Benson, “In Bangkok, there’s one hospital that primarily serves foreigners, and usually asking for recommendations of doctors from the hospital or even seeing a doctor that works at the hospital is a pretty reliable method.”

Be careful when it comes to your vagina.

There are few things worse than having a yeast infection or UTI when you’re in the middle of nowhere, and a pharmacy full of Monistat or cranberry pills is nowhere in sight.

“When I went to see a doctor in Thailand about a yeast infection…the prevailing attitude was that you never put anything inside your vagina,” recounts Benson. “I was like, ‘But how are we going to get rid of the yeast infection if I never put anything inside my vagina?’ You run up against things like that, where you’re not going to get the same standard of treatment that you get back here.”

If you are in desperate need of a gynecologist and you aren’t in a well-developed metropolitan area, your best bet is to stop by the local hospital. But if you have no choice but to go to a general physician for vaginal needs, it’s always smart for women to request female doctors. If that’s not a viable option, then at least request that a nurse be present during your exam.

When it comes to dealing with sexually transmitted diseases, you are likely to get a good level of care from general physicians. In developing countries with sex worker industries, doctors are largely well trained and educated to deal with these diseases, Benson said.

As for birth control, you’re better off filling your prescription at home before you embark on your journey, since your particular type of birth control might not be available in the countries you are visiting.

“Having your friend fill [your prescription] at home and send it to you can be a last-ditch emergency solution, depending on the custom laws and if your package gets stopped and searched,” Benson said. “When I lived in Japan for three years, I would have friends fill my prescriptions and send them over, and that worked pretty well.”

Watch out for counterfeit medications.

In major cities like Paris or Berlin, your prescriptions are probably in a pharmacist’s good hands—but in less-developed areas of the world, Benson advises a measure of caution when it comes to trusting medications, since regulations vary from country to country.

It’s a good idea to check the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ country-specific websites to check if there are any medication warnings for the countries you’re planning on visiting. For instance, the agency’s page for Cambodia says that you should be wary of purchasing meds in that country.

“Inform yourself of the situations in those countries and whether or not counterfeit medications are problematic in your destinations. If they are, of course, then you need to be extra careful,” Taylor said. “You can’t take a medicine cabinet with you, but you might want to take some basic medications you think you’ll need.”

Benson has seen friends be given sugar pills instead of their actual prescription, and she’s also had friends be given an entirely different medication all together. Rather than rely on prescriptions from small drugstores in remote places, you’re better off getting a prescription filed at a hospital pharmacy, or trying to hold out until you can go to a major expat city.

“[Counterfeit pills] look just like the real thing, so I don’t know how anyone would be able to tell the difference, except for saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t working,’” Benson explains. “With contraceptives, finding that out would be, obviously, a very bad thing.”

Image via Getty.

Lisa Ryan is a writer in Brooklyn. Follow her on twitter: @lisarya.

Flygirl is Jezebel’s new travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.

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