Be Well: Seeking Medical Help Abroad

Antonio Manfredonio CC BY 2.0

Written by  May 30, 2016

Visiting a foreign health clinic can be intimidating, but if you prepare yourself, you won’t sweat a thing.

I’ve spent a five-hour bus journey vomiting in Colombia, an 11-hour ride half-conscious and sweating out Mono in Argentina, and 12 hours on a bus through Peru with a migraine, crying when the driver claimed he didn’t know how to lower the television’s blaring volume.

When you move abroad, there are some things you can’t control. You will get sick and, if you’re like me, you’ll often find yourself crying on public transportation. But if there’s one thing over which you can maintain control, it’s your health resources.

Take these precautions, and you’ll be ready to combat any funky illness that comes your way:

Getting vaccinated

As soon as your flight is booked (or sooner, if you’re really on top of things), research your destination and the vaccinations that you will need. If you’re short on time and can’t get an appointment with your general care provider, consider speaking with a travel health centre. They will do the medical research for you, provide you with a personalized booklet regarding all vaccines and risky illnesses, and provide the vaccines on the spot.

Buying medical insurance

Until you lock down a full-time job with benefits, you likely won’t encounter medical insurance abroad. Research options for travel medical insurance in the meantime. I bought monthly coverage through MedEx. It doesn’t cover every type of visit, so I also have to be prepared to cover some doctor’s appointments and trips to the emergency room in cash. You’ll want to be clear about what type of insurance you’re buying, and ask these questions first.

Collecting medical supplies

Carrying a travel-sized medical cabinet often follows what I call "the Umbrella Rule:" carry one with you at all times, and it will never rain. But the one day you leave it at home, you’ll find yourself in a downpour.

When you’re crossing borders, it’s smart to keep everything in its original labelled containers. But in your everyday routine, include a simplified kit in your backpack or purse. You’ll need a few of the basics: pain relievers, diarrhea or rehydration pills, and a fever reducer. This way, you won’t be weighed down by too many bottles or boxes—and will find yourself with a sufficient personal supply until you can get to a pharmacy. It’s also a good idea to include a small bottle of sunscreen and insect repellent should you find yourself caught outside for longer than expected. 

Searching for a doctor

The US Embassy offers country-specific lists of recommended doctors, some of them English-speaking. In the past few months, I’ve already referenced these lists for Ecuador and Colombia, given my habit for needing medical attention abroad. As the US Embassy’s list for Ecuador was a little outdated (last edited in 2007), I also referenced the UK Embassy’s list, also available online. Then, when I wanted to see a doctor in Medellin, I asked my new friends for recommendations. And the very next morning, I had an appointment with a friend’s brother-in-law who works in a hospital near my neighbourhood.

If you’re searching for a doctor in a time-crunch, don’t be shy. Seeking medical help abroad can feel intimidating. But ask for advice, and you’ll find that new friends and roommates are eager to offer it and connect you with a professional.

Making an appointment

While in Argentina, I self-prescribed myself with strep throat and bought antibiotics at a local pharmacy, where they are sold over-the-counter. This turned out to be the wrong decision, and my health only worsened. Especially in the case that you may need antibiotics, it’s always best to ask a doctor for a professional opinion rather than experimenting with what’s available to you. Call sooner rather than later.

Should you make a miraculous recovery, a medical appointment can always be cancelled. But if you find yourself in poor health with a three-day wait-time to see a physician, regret only adds to your body’s already sad state. For a quicker response time, always call rather than trying to schedule an appointment online. And be proactive! No health problem is too small to warrant a doctor’s visit.

Preparing a vocabulary list

No matter how advanced you feel in your second language, chances are, you’re missing a few medical terms that would help describe your condition. Create a medical vocabulary list to effectively explain your concerns to the doctor. And even if a doctor is included on your embassy’s “English-speaking” list, remember that this convenience is not necessarily a guarantee. The last way you want to spend your allotted appointment is searching for words in a dictionary. The more efficiently you can explain your problem, the quicker they’ll be able to discover a solution.

Coping with food poisoning

Remember that backpack supply of pills? If you can’t seem to keep your food in your stomach, you’ll want to reach for the dehydration medication sooner rather than later. Drink lots of fluids—energy drinks are great for replenishing your body with sugar and electrolytes— and sip on some yerba buena (herbal tea) to settle your stomach.

You might also want to resign yourself to the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. Avoid fast food, street food, and anything that you don’t prepare yourself until the bug goes away. Normally, it’s only a matter of waiting. But if you’re unable to eat for more than a few days, it’s always better to call a doctor.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Caroline Cassard

Caroline Cassard is a travel and food-enthused English language teacher from the U.S. Excited to explore Latin America and beyond, she scavenges for vegetarian meals and attempts to pick up the local language between classes.


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