Navigating a Foreign Hospital While Traveling Solo
When you’re planning your first solo trip, you never want to have to deal with medical emergencies, doctors or a hospital emergency room. Given my personal track record though, I expected I probably would and bought the best travel insurance I could find. Even so, I never dreamed I’d have two weeks like I just did.
In the last two weeks I’ve:
- Broken a loose step and badly scratched my thigh on a rusty nail as I fell through the set of stairs.
- Got attacked by a monkey in Angkor Wat, who scratched me twice on my calf, drawing blood.
- Had a nasty cold.
- Got food poisoning from street food in Krabi, Thailand.
Basically, I am the poster child for why you should NEVER leave home without travel insurance. I have talked to the medical staff so often lately that I don’t even need to tell them my policy number, I just say “Hi, it’s Susie” and they pass me along to one of my case workers.
I’ve gone to six hospitals in my four months in SE Asia (only four times for me though – and yes I know that’s still a ridiculously high number). Thankfully while my medical emergencies have been numerous, they’ve also been fairly minor. Regardless, as I’ve had all this unintentional experience, I thought I’d share some tips about what to do if you find yourself going to the hospital overseas.
Before you leave home:
- NEVER LEAVE WITHOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE. I use World Nomads, they have great 24/7 medical support and are highly recommended by many bloggers I follow.
- Create a document with your emergency contact numbers, your policy information, and your insurance’s emergency numbers (be sure to include both US/Canada toll-free and international calling numbers). Print it out and keep it in your purse/go bag.
- Put this somewhere safe on your phone… in a note, an email, on your medical alert for iPhone. It needs to be easily accessible in case you don’t have your printed copy.
- Carry a photocopy of your passport or have a photo on your phone – all hospitals will ask to see it.
Immediately post injury/sickness:
- Call your insurance, let them know what’s happened. They will probably recommend going to a specific hospital, this gets your claim started right away, helps facilitate reimbursement, and saves you from researching which hospital has English speaking doctors.
- If you’re uncomfortable with hospitals or are feeling out of it, don’t be afraid to ask someone to come with you. I’ve had enough experience with hospitals that I didn’t mind going alone, but if that’s not the case for you ask for the support.
- Bring an external charger with you, if possible. It’s more than likely that you’ll run out of batteries texting people back home, calling your insurance or watching Netflix.
Tip: it is free to call toll free numbers on Skype. My SIM card wouldn’t let me call collect so I was glad to have data or wifi to call through Skype.
During hospital visit:
- Never consent to treatment before speaking to your insurance. The doctors in Krabi first tried to hospitalize me for 3 days for food poisoning and when I refused that, wanted to do $400 in tests. I called my insurance to back me up on my instinct that what I needed was to go home and rest. If I had gone ahead with the tests, I have no doubt I would have been stuck with the bill myself!
- If you have to pay a certain amount before you’re covered (apparently it’s called an excess in Europe), then find out what the fee is to see a doctor if you DON’T have insurance. It can be a difference of up to $100. Sometimes it’s easier to pay the $30 doctor fee up front and not claim through insurance. You can insist to pay yourself and not go through insurance. They won’t like it, but they won’t turn you away either.
- If you are arranging for your insurance to pay the hospital directly, get the conversation started and then, if possible, head home. It will take hours for the hospital and insurance to come to an agreement, so benefit from my experience and just go back to your hostel for the afternoon. Have the hospital call you when the Guarantee of Payment has gone through and you can get your treatment.
Before you leave the hospital:
- Ensure that you have a medical certificate from the doctor describing everything you discussed. My doctor in Krabi gave me one for the rabies vaccine but forgot to mention the food poisoning. I would have had to foot the $50 ER visit without that medical certificate.
- Ensure you have receipts for everything. If the hospital is helping you arrange a taxi home, they may be able to write you a receipt – which you can then claim. It doesn’t hurt to ask!
- Update your insurance company.
- Take pictures of every document and email them to yourself. I also stored mine on dropbox just in case.
- Start the paperwork your insurance company has emailed you… it’s lengthy! If you’ll be seeing multiple doctors (ie for rabies vaccination schedule) then keep your paperwork updated as you go. Your future self will thank you!
- Store your receipts in a safe place. Your insurance company will not give a reimbursement until they have the originals.
My hope is that you purchase travel insurance and never have to deal with them. But life can happen at any moment and it’s always better to be safe than sorry!
Have you had to go to a hospital while traveling?
Tell me about it in the comments!