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How to get medical care overseas

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — An international vacation typically involves months of advance planning, from renewing passports to finding flights and booking hotels. But a health problem can knock off course even the most carefully planned itinerary.

If you're traveling in a country where you don't speak the language and your insurance isn't accepted, even a basic errand such as filling a prescription can become an ordeal.

Last year, nearly 61 million Americans traveled abroad for business or pleasure, with trips peaking at 6.8 million in July, according to the U.S. office of Travel and Tourism Industries. The most popular overseas destinations included Europe, the Caribbean and Asia, which together accounted for nearly 80 percent of all trips outside North America.

Here are some tips on getting the medical care you need:


Travelers who rely on a prescription medication should do extra research and planning before traveling outside the United States. Generally, it's easier to bring an ample supply of medication from home than to try to get it refilled overseas.

Most pharmacies will give you an extended supply of medication if you show them your travel itinerary. Keep prescriptions in original bottles that clearly display your name. This is important when traveling through foreign customs.

If you have narcotic-based pain medication, such as codeine, you may want to check with the U.S. embassy in the country you're visiting to make sure the drug is not considered illegal. A list of embassies and consulates is available on the Department of State's website at

If you lose your medication or need a new prescription abroad, most pharmacies will honor a fax or email from a U.S. physician. Some countries do not require prescriptions for common medications.


Sometimes you'll need more than a prescription refill to get your trip back on track.

Let's say a jellyfish stings you while you're at a beach in Ecuador. A rash develops into an infection, and you want to find an English-speaking doctor who can diagnose the problem and prescribe the best treatment. Your health insurance does not cover overseas travel, and your Spanish is limited.

Fortunately, there are several organizations that offer free help finding qualified physicians.

The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers maintains an online database of licensed, English-speaking doctors in 90 countries:

Most hotel concierges keep a list of English-speaking doctors. In some cases, they'll have a doctor on call who can see you in your room.

Doctors recommend that travelers with chronic conditions, allergies or rare blood types bring a form with their medical history. The American College of Emergency Physicians offers a medical history form on the website

Keep this in your wallet or purse, not the luggage that stays in your hotel room.


Most government and employer-based health plans do not cover medical care overseas. Many travel agencies recommend customers purchase travel health insurance.

Along with covering the cost of canceled trips or travel delays, companies such as Travel Guard,, provide health coverage options from basic medical expenses to medical evacuation.

Depending on the country and the condition of the patient, an international medical flight can cost $50,000 or more, making an insurance policy a smart financial decision. Adventure travelers who face risk of harm can be covered for the repatriation of dismembered limbs and other remains, according to Laurene Taylor of Liberty Travel, a New York-based travel agency.

Travel insurance prices vary, depending on the cost of the trip and the age of the travelers.

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