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How to Navigate Foreign Healthcare Systems & Get Medical Care Abroad

Becky Hart | May 10, 2024

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Getting sick is never fun. Being sick in an unfamiliar country with a healthcare system you don’t understand is even worse.

A smart traveler does what they can to prepare for the worst. If figuring out a foreign healthcare system sounds daunting, never fear. We have you covered with the top things you need to know about accessing medical care abroad.

Differences between U.S. and Foreign Healthcare Systems

Healthcare systems in foreign countries do not work the same way they do in the United States. So what should we expect if we need emergency medical care abroad?

1. Care could be the same but different.

If you have to go to the hospital or a doctor’s office during your international travels, be prepared for some things to look familiar and other things to look, well, foreign.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the medical staff is doing something wrong. It’s just different. When the procedures are in another language, things can feel even more unfamiliar.

Try to stay relaxed and keep an open mind. Just as there are different ways of dressing, eating, and queueing in line when you're in another country, you may find different customs become apparent in medical care. Ask questions when and if you can, if that helps put your mind at ease.

2. It can be easier to get affordable medical care abroad.

Healthcare in the United States is expensive. That’s why we always recommend travel medical insurance for visitors to the U.S.

Just don’t be fooled into thinking your medical care will be free or cheap if you’re outside the U.S. Medical bills can still add up, and paying for them out of pocket can still be painful.

3. Universal healthcare usually isn’t intended for foreign visitors.

All too often, we hear people say, “I don’t need travel insurance. My destination has free healthcare.”

Emergency Vehicle

In reality, that free healthcare is intended for citizens and residents of the country, not visitors. Americans are not entitled to free medical care when abroad.

While treatment might still be less expensive than what you’d find in the U.S., don’t depend on another country’s universal healthcare to cover you.

4. Medicare does not usually cover overseas medical care.

Just like most U.S. domestic health insurance, Medicare does not typically cover you outside your home country. Medicaid does not cover you during international travel, either.

Fortunately, you can fill that gap and still have medical insurance abroad if you purchase travel insurance.

5. You may be required to pay upfront.

When we receive care in the United States, we might have a copay due at the time of treatment, but the rest of the medical bills come later. Healthcare systems in some other countries expect full payment on the spot.

To the American ear, it sounds absurd that you could be denied care at a hospital if you don’t pay first. That can be the case, though. Some foreign hospitals require payment upfront before treating you. A guarantee of payment (GOP) from an insurance company may be sufficient, which is why you need your insurance card. More on this below.

Other hospitals may require payment before they release you. While this feels a little less urgent because you’re presumably on your way to recovery, you won't be going home until you’ve settled the bill.

Preparing for a Medical Emergency Abroad

One of the best ways to make overseas medical care easy is to prepare before you leave home. Here are five things to know before you seek medical care abroad.

1. Carry a letter from your at-home provider.

If you have any pre-existing conditions, chronic illnesses, or allergies, a letter explaining these conditions and the care you receive for them is good to have. You can then give this to the doctors treating you abroad so they have a more complete picture of your medical history.

The letter should also include a list of any medications you’re taking. Be sure to use their generic names instead of brand names and include the dose.

Lastly, include your blood type in this document. Everything listed in the letter is ideally written in English and in the language of your destination.

Medical Services

2. Bring your own prescriptions.

If you’re currently on medication, even something as basic as a daily allergy pill, bring enough for the entire trip, plus a bit extra in case your return home is delayed.

The quality, type, and dosage of medications in other countries is not always regulated the same as they are in the U.S. By carrying enough of your own, you decrease the risk associated with taking an unregulated drug or needing to try something different.

3. Research local medical services.

Thanks to the internet, it’s a lot easier to find medical facilities abroad. Some people like to locate a hospital at their destination so that in case of an emergency, they already know where to go. Even Googling gets a lot harder when you don’t feel well or you’re panicked.

You can also rely on Seven Corners Assist for this. Like translation services, Seven Corners can help you locate a quality medical facility near you.

4. Understand how your travel insurance works.

Let’s start with a few common misconceptions. Your domestic health insurance might not cover your overseas. Any insurance you have from your credit card also might not cover medical treatment. If it does, that coverage is likely pretty limited and may not be as helpful as you want it to be. And that box you checked to buy insurance from your airline? It’s likely not going to pay your hospital bills, either.

That’s why travel medical insurance is necessary for your international travels. When you’re choosing your plan, spend some time getting familiar with what’s covered and how it works. What types of treatments are included – inpatient versus outpatient care, dental, vision, pre-existing conditions – can vary by plan.

Learn what different terms in a travel medical plan mean. This will help you understand what you’re paying for and how much your insurance provider will pay when you receive treatment.

Knowing these things beforehand will not only make it easier to manage a medical emergency in the moment, but it can also reduce headaches if you have to file a claim. And if you get a little confused, you’re not alone. Talk to a licensed agent if you have any questions about your plan.

5. Have your documents in order.

Before you leave home, have the following documents in order:

  • Vaccination records
  • List of prescriptions or the doctor-provided letter mentioned above
  • Copy of your passport
  • Proof of travel insurance

Stow these documents in a safe, convenient place. This could be digitally on a phone or in the Cloud. We recommend also having physical copies available. Some medical facilities prefer seeing it in literal writing.

“Even though I boarded a Vietnam-bound plane using an eTicket on my phone, at the hospital I visited there, they looked at my iPhone’s digital travel insurance card like it was a joke,” said Seven Corners contributor Luke Armstrong. “When getting medical care in a foreign country, paper documents and eDocuments are not created equally. Who knows how they do things wherever you’re going, so be sure to bring valid paper documentation.”

You might also give access to the digital or physical copies to a trusted travel companion in case they need to help manage medical care for you.

Best Ways to Get Medical Care Abroad

1. Use translation services.

When you don’t speak the same language as your medical providers, even a simple injury or illness gets more difficult to manage. In severe cases or instances where an emergency medical evacuation needs to be arranged, having a translator is vital.

There are a few ways to access translation services for medical care abroad:

Translation Services
  • Seven Corners Assist is available 24/7 to support all its customers in emergencies. One of the team’s duties is arranging translation services for medical care. Contact them via phone, text, or WhatsApp.
  • Take a local. Maybe you’re visiting a friend, or your Airbnb host is multilingual. Ask if they’re willing to accompany you as a translator. They might not know the vocabulary for medical jargon, but it’s better than nothing.
  • If you’re staying at a hotel, ask the concierge if they have a translator who can help. If nothing else, they might be able to call ahead to the hospital and see if the facility can provide translation services upon your arrival.
  • Carry a travel dictionary or use an app like Google Translate. They aren’t perfect, but again, it’s better than nothing.

Many of our customers have used Seven Corners Assist to locate translation services for a medical emergency. Read how Steve relied on these services when his teenage son was hospitalized with bacterial pneumonia in France.

2. Insist on new needles and syringes.

Whether it’s a lack of resources or a lack of understanding, not all medical facilities have the same hygiene practices that we’re used to in the U.S. Make sure that any needles and syringes used are new. Watch them open a new package, if you must.

If you’re someone who has a condition that requires you to use needles or syringes, it's a good idea to travel with your own. You will likely need documentation from your provider at home and maybe some special permissions from your host country to cross the border with these medical supplies.

3. Ask about blood screening for transfusions.

A blood transfusion sounds extreme, but it’s not unheard of. Like needles and syringes, you want to make sure what you’re receiving has been screened and is safe.

Ask how the hospital tests its blood supplies. Make sure a travel companion knows to ask those questions, too, in case you’re incapacitated.

4. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

Remember that we said different doesn’t mean bad. If something feels wrong, though, it’s okay to seek a second opinion. Your health is worth the effort of asking confirming questions.

A second opinion is exactly what Ed needed when he got sick on a cruise. Originally misdiagnosed with “ship bug,” this Seven Corners customer was later hospitalized in Portugal with pneumonia and heart failure.

You might be able to find a second opinion at the facility. You could also consult your doctor back home in some instances. Before you leave for your trip, check with your doctor about the possibility of telemedicine in case it’s needed.

5. Request documentation of all treatment received.

Before you leave the medical facility, ask for documentation of everything they did for you. This includes documentation of medications received or prescribed.

There are two reasons for this. First, your insurance provider may need this documentation when processing your claim. You don’t want a claim to be denied because you didn’t have the right paperwork.

Second, you’ll want to provide this documentation to your doctor at home. Have it added to your medical record, so they have an up-to-date history for you. Depending on your situation, your doctor may want to schedule a follow-up visit or have additional recommendations for treatment based on those records.

Medical Insurance for International Travel

By now you know that you can’t necessarily rely on your usual health insurance to cover you if you get sick or hurt during your trip. Your best bet is travel medical insurance, which can:

  • Cover medical expenses for treatment.
  • Pay and arrange for emergency medical evacuations if your destination cannot provide adequate medical care.
  • Provide 24/7 emergency travel assistance services with support such as translation services, locating medical care, and more.

You don’t want to take risks with your health or your money, merely hoping that you’ll be able to afford medical care abroad if the need arises. Get a quick quote for at SevenCorners.com or contact a licensed agent.

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