Global Business Basics -- Traveler's Tips for Medical Emergencies

Dec. 21, 2004
What to take, who to contact, and where to find help.

You wake up in the middle of the night, in a foreign country, suffering from a mysterious pain. It's bad enough to feel miserable when you are home in your own bed, but how frightening is it when you are far from the safe haven of your family physician? When I was 18 years old, I studied in Spain. My roommate, Sue Ellen, and I stayed in the home of a widow and her family. When Sue Ellen became very ill one night, it was a terrifying experience. Our Spanish hosts, while concerned and anxious, didn't offer any advice or any of those little comforts like hot tea and cold compresses that would have been so familiar in my home. And when I wanted to call her parents back in the U.S., or take her to the hospital, Sue Ellen refused both. (She wasn't herself, and I shouldn't have listened to her.) In the morning, I called the director of the university program, who sent over a doctor. I'll never forget my feeling of shock when he came in and immediately stuck a thermometer under Sue Ellen's arm! She and I looked at each other and thought: "A quack!" Now, years later, I know a little bit more about various clinical practices, and realize we were lucky that the doctor did make house calls, and that Sue Ellen recuperated beautifully from her episode. And I have since met many people who have had thermometers stuck in their armpits -- and needles stuck all over their bodies. Worrying about medical emergencies abroad is high on the list of travelers' concerns. Being prepared to find English-speaking medical help, knowing how to pay for it, and understanding your options for transportation home in an emergency can ease a very difficult situation. So here are a few sites to visit before you go global come spring and summer: Start with the U.S. Dept. of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs Web site. They have compiled a good list of many Air Ambulance / Med -Evac organizations and travel insurance companies. Paying for a plan can be a very wise investment, since many insurance policies (including Medicare) do not cover hospital or medical costs outside the U.S. Getting you home can easily run $10,000.00, and they'll want it right away. Be sure to review the explanation of how the U.S. embassy or consulate in your target location can help. For example, the U.S. consular officer can locate appropriate medical facilities for you, and contact your family or friends back home. A visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site at will provide you with information about specific diseases, health risks, and worldwide immunization. Also, it may be wise to open up a membership at IAMAT is a non-profit organization that maintains a network of Western-trained doctors who speak English, and also advises travelers of health risks and immunization requirements. The organization offers a free membership for individuals, (donations accepted) and corporate memberships. See your doctor for a check-up, and get any inoculations you may need. Also ask for a copy of any prescriptions you commonly use. Stock your carry-on bag with extra medications, and leave them in the prescription bottle in case Customs wants documentation for the drugs. Take extra glasses, copies of any prescriptions you might need, records of your immunizations, and contact information from back home. When you get to your destination, please, don't try anything that has not been boiled or thoroughly cooked. This means no raw fruit, treats from street vendors, or ice cubes!!!! If you do have the misfortune to be sick far from home, follow your company's procedures, follow your insurance companies' instructions, and follow everyone's advice. But if you're in China, don't be surprised if your traditional Chinese doctor looks at your complexion, examines your tongue, or squeezes the top of your finger to examine your fingerprint (if it appears to be "floating" it indicates a superficial disease; if it seems deep, this may mean a deep disease). There are many traditional Chinese hospitals, but some of their physicians are also trained in western medicine. If you have a traditional Chinese physician, he or she may prescribe herbs, acupuncture, certain food cures, some manipulative therapy (massage), and specific exercises. These programs of treatment have been established and proven for thousands of years (documented in a third century B.C. reference called Nei-Jing, or The Yellow Emperor's Classics of Internal Medicine). A good book on traditional Chinese medical practice is Chinese Natural Cures by Henry C. Liu. Having an open mind about medical practices in different cultures can be difficult, but with the right preparation, you can alleviate those medical anxieties and enjoy happy and healthy travels! Terri Morrison is the coauthor of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries and several other books pertaining to doing business globally. For further information phone 610/725-1040, fax 800-529-8167, or e-mail: [email protected].

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