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Travel Tips If You Need Medical Care in a Foreign Country

Ever been sick in a foreign country? It's no fun. My husband and I have had the unfortunate distinction of landing in the hospital in two different foreign countries in one year. While I don’t wish that distinction on anyone, I thought I’d offer up what I’ve learned in case it happens to you!

Hopefully, you’ll know the language.

If not, bring your phone - Google Translate may be your best friend. When I was in the hospital in French-speaking Canada and my husband in Chile, I was able to communicate with the medical staff, but there were some technical medical terms I wasn’t familiar with in English, let alone another language. So Google Translate was handy.

Bring your meds.

Bring your medications with you to the doctor or to the hospital. Showing your medication to medical personnel, not just trying to remember them, may reduce some stress. By taking your meds with you, you’ll also avoid forgetting a critical medication that may negatively interact with anything the doctor may prescribe, which is a different set of problems.

Pharmacies in other countries may not be what you’re used to.

Or they might not have a pharmacy at all where you are. We were in a fairly remote section of Chile, in a “ski resort” (and I use that phrase in the loosest possible terms). The doctor who treated my husband printed out a list of medications and said to get them at the news stand. The what? Yeah, the “news stand”. Think CVS or Walgreens stuffed into a broom closet. My transaction went something like this: You knock on the door. A woman answers the door and you tell her, “Hi, I need amoxicillin, a Snickers bar and a six-pack of toilet paper.” She rummages around and pops up with the stuff you need. That said, the woman who owned the store was lovely.

At a pharmacy In Santiago, Chile, I had to take a number (like at the deli counter) and wait for our number to be called. Then I told the pharmacist what we needed. I had to do this for a simple package of cough drops.

If you need to rearrange your trip due to illness, think strategically.

When my husband got sick in the Chile, we had to change our plans - flights, hotels,everything. We stayed a few extra days in Santiago not only so he could recover, but also because our hotel at the ski resort was fully booked. So, we had to go. Lucky for us, we had been to Santiago before, so we were familiar enough to know that we wanted to stay in the business district of Los Condes. We stayed at the Marriott Courtyard and it was awesome! But more importantly, it was attached to a shopping mall that had a pharmacy, a grocery store and a food court. So, if we needed medication, juice or hydration drinks, or just grab a meal, we could get it without much effort. There was also a park across the street to take a walk.

Rebooking our flights took more effort. Although our Delta Airlines tickets were non-refundable, that didn’t mean we couldn’t rebook them. I first tried an online chat with an airline agent, and it was a disaster. The agent I chatted with told me I would have to buy all new tickets. I knew that wasn’t correct and that I could probably rebook for a fee. While I was doing the online chat with the agent, I was also on the phone on hold with Delta waiting to talk to a real person. I want to say I was on hold between 45 minutes to an hour, but the wait was worth it. I was able to rebook for two days later for a $150 per person change fee. It’s important to note at this point that Delta flights to Santiago are operated by Latam Airlines. As a result, the agent had to put me in touch with the Delta international paper ticketing office. This took a few more minutes, but the agent was excellent and was able to easily reschedule our flight and also confirm that the rebooking went through with Latam. Although I was freaking out inside, I was consciously trying to be extra calm and patient when speaking to the agent. I really couldn’t have asked for a better agent experience. She was fantastic.

You’re probably gonna fight with your insurance company. A lot. And for a long time.

When I was in the hospital in French-speaking Canada, we couldn’t use our U.S. health insurance. We had to pay up front (by the way, we also had to pay up front in Chile, and we’re still dealing with that, so stay tuned). When we submitted the Canada bill for reimbursement to our insurance company, they denied it because the hospital services rendered didn’t contain any U.S. medical coding. Uh, that’s because I didn’t receive services in the U.S. The Canada hospital bill was detailed and everything, was itemized. Even though the services rendered were listed in French, it would have been easy enough to use Google Translate (see tip 1!). After more than six months of back and forth with the hospital in Canada (in French) and the insurance company in the U.S., we were finally reimbursed….for the wrong amount! So we had to start the process over. I was an enormous pain in the a** , but it has now been resolved.

Make friends with the hotel staff.

The hotel employees in Canada and in Chile were very nice and went out of their way to help us. I’d like to believe that they go out of their way to help everyone, but being nice to hotel employees can’t hurt.

Let’s recap - What are the lessons here?

  • When going a doctor or hospital, to the extent possible, think about what you may need to provide to the medical personnel so they can help you.

  • Pharmacies may operate differently than you’re used to, and you may need to see a pharmacist for things that are over-the-counter at home.

  • When making unexpected hotel reservations, think about location in terms of what you may need to do or buy, and about comfort. If you’re going to spend a significant amount of time in your hotel room, it may be worth it to stay at a nicer hotel, upgrade your room, order room service, whatever.

  • For rebooking on airlines, speaking to a person is key. Be nice.

  • Insurance companies are not going to reimburse you without a fight. Be persistent.

While this list of tips isn't exhaustive, I hope it's helpful if you ever need it - hopefully you won't!


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