After my latest stay in a foreign hospital, I have been flooded with questions about medical care abroad. Can you find it? How? Is medical care abroad safe? How do you navigate medical care in another language? Do hospitals in the developing world have adequate equipment? Trained doctors? Appropriate medicine?

And the most frequently asked question….

Weren’t you scared?!

I”ve said it before and I will say it again…. Based on experience, I am more afraid of getting sick in the United States than I am of getting sick while traveling abroad.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are experiences and thoughts on medical care abroad from some fellow travelers.

Susan Whitehead
Susan was able to take care of a medical concern in a cost effective and comfortable setting in Mexico. 

When living in Chapala, Mexico, a local dermatology clinic had a free skin cancer screening. The doctor checked out several moles, took a few photos and showed me what she found. Two newer moles on my toes were irregularly shaped, had a mottled color and needed to be removed to be biopsied. Within a week, they were gone. Surgery included local anesthetic, cauterizing, removal of some pretty decent chunks of my big toes and a handful of stitches in each toe. Total cost was a one time payment of 2400 Mexican Pesos or about $185 USD. Antibiotics and a few bandaging supplies was another $40 USD. The total also included a pathology report and a second appointment for the removal of the stitches. The doctor was completely bilingual, as was her staff. The office was super modern and clean and I couldn’t have been more pleased with the care I received.

Theodora had a a frightening experience in Mongolia with her son that deepened her belief in carrying travel insurance and gave her an appreciation for medical care in Hong Kong.

When my son shattered his arm in Mongolia, he was initially treated in a rural clinic, with no running water. Mongolian healthcare is very basic, so we were evacuated to Hong Kong. The hospital there, however, had many more facilities than we’d ever have achieved in the UK. Without travel insurance, though, we’d have been completely stranded, as no one in Mongolia had the skills to do the surgery he required.
The full story: Travel Insurance

Emily and her family are trying to navigate the new Affordable Care Act in the US while traveling and finding that in some other countries, there is no need to carry insurance for basic health needs.

We have been in Costa Rica for a year, with plans to bounce around several more countries in the following 5+ years.  We have a 3 yr old and 1 yr old.  Since we understand that we do not need to purchase healthcare as long as we stay out of the US for all but 1 month/year, we’ve changed our home visits (family is in MD) to 2-3 weeks per year, leaving room for a week or so in case an emergency visit is necessary.  We haven’t yet, but plan to get traveler’s insurance, regardless of the health care reform in the States.

It’s a shame we can’t visit family more than a few weeks per year should we wish to, but to be honest–it fits in with our travel plans, anyways.

Here in Costa Rica, we don’t have need of health insurance.  There are clinics in every town that administer free vaccines for children, citizen or not.  Should there be an emergency, there are state-of-the-art hospitals within an hour’s drive, and the final bill would be reasonable.  A dental check up and cleaning is $40 or less.  A pediatrician’s visit is $20, including treatment.  So, the out-of-pocket method is working well for us at the moment.

Talon had an unexpected trip to the ER in Australia while traveling with his son, “Tigger”.

So what did I think about Australia healthcare? Besides wishing I hadn’t had the experience, I mean.

– Pretty efficient, but I was also in a smaller town.

– Every doctor introduced themselves to me by their first name. There were at least 3 physicians on duty which impressed me for the size of the city and hospital. The doctor also did the majority of my patient care, including the IV insertion.

– $240 AUD flat fee for the ER? Includes the physician, medications, x-rays, labs, etc. WOW! $1200 AUD for an inpatient stay which would’ve included everything done, including surgery, except if an outside consultant came in. I’d have to pay their fee separately.

– Fastest call button answers in my life! I would press on the button and within seconds a nurse was in my room.

– They watched out for Tigger and made sure he was comfortable throughout our long stay.

I’d give the system 5 stars from what I experienced. Yes, my experience was pretty limited, but I’ve worked in ERs for enough years to see a VERY different experience.
The full story: Experiencing Australian Healthcare

Jennifer Miller
With 4 kids in tow, Jennifer Miller and her husband have had to make use of medical facilities all over the world, including routine care.

Dental, or vision, or chiropractor visits; all are necessary from time to time. We’ve found it quite a simple matter, both within the USA and abroad to arrange these visits anywhere that we are going to stay a week or more. I check with my fellow travelers and look for recommendations, and I make use of some of the Dr. rating and recommendation sites out there. If I can find a first hand recommendation from someone I know, that’s my first preference.

I just call ahead, explain our situation and make an appointment. We’ve had dental cleanings and repair work done in Guatemala, Austria & Bali, Indonesia, and the USA. We’ve had vision appointments in the USA, Thailand and Indonesia. We’ve visited a chiropractor in Indiana. We’ve had emergency care in the USA, Guatemala, and Thailand.

Our general recommendation, especially outside of the first world, is to make use of private hospitals and western trained doctors over the public hospitals any time you can.

Almost all of our healthcare we pay for out of pocket as it is generally less than the deductible on our insurance. If it is higher, then we pay out of pocket and file the claim for reimbursement.
The full story: Healthcare on the Road

Elaine’s son had an unexpected surgery in Alexandria, Egypt and the experience turned out much better than she might have imagined. 

In November of 2012 our family was on a Mediterranean cruise when our 13 year old son said his stomach hurt.  He began throwing up and was quarantined to his room to avoid spreading a stomach flu throughout the ship. The next day he continued to get worse.  The medical clinic on the ship looked at him and said it was just a bad stomach virus but when we docked in Alexandria, Egypt we took him to the hospital for further tests.  My husband went with him while I took our other three children to see some of Alexandria.

After our taxi tour, we went back to the ship’s medical clinic to see if they had heard anything and I learned that my son was just heading into surgery for appendicitis. I nearly panicked because I had no idea what hospital my child had been taken to and I had seen a very run down building that served as a children’s hospital on our tour earlier that day.

Later, the ship doctor and I went to the hospital to see my son and I was relieved to find it was a nice, private hospital and my son was in a private jr. suite room.  My husband said he was a bit worried in the ER earlier that morning because it looked old and he was unsettled not knowing the culture or language and wondering if our son was getting the care he needed.  As it turned out, our son received great care! The doctors and staff were so attentive to him. In fact, a few days later when he was released from the hospital, the doctor refused to let my husband and son take a taxi to the train station to get to Cairo, instead driving them himself in his personal car, stopping along the way to buy them lunch.

We did have to pay in full, up front, for our son’s care but the total cost was less than our co-pay would have been in the US! Luckily we had travel insurance and the entire cost paid was reimbursed to us.

Melissa Banigan
Melissa and her daughter has had a few experiences abroad that have made Melissa question the medical care in the USA, her home country.

A couple years ago, during a ten-hour bus ride from Madrid to Lisbon, I came down with the flu. A week later, as I started to come out of it, my then ten-year-old daughter caught a bad cough. As she has always been asthmatic and it generally takes awhile to get over a cold, we waited nearly two weeks before finally deciding to visit a doctor. By that point, we had taken buses from Lisbon to Lagoa to Lagos and finally, back into Spain, to Granada. We were wiped out. It was also around 100 degrees, and I had just about run out of money due to a problem with a paycheck not having been deposited.

Luckily, unlike the USA, it was easy for us to stop into a pharmacy and be prescribed medicine that cost us only a few dollars. The medicine took the edge off the cough, although a couple days later a friend finally convinced us to visit his uncle, a plastic surgeon. While it was surreal to visit a plastic surgeon for a cold, it cost next to nothing for my daughter to be treated. It was around that time I thought, “man, something is seriously wrong with the health system in the USA.

This thought was reconfirmed last summer in Peru when, after being bitten by a type of fly in the jungle that is known for carrying a rather nasty parasite, I stopped into a pharmacy. In broken Spanish I explained my problem, and in about two minutes the pharmacist had nodded, opened a book, showed me the description of the insect and potential problems with the bites (in English), and suggested an antibiotic. I paid about $4.00 USD for a week’s worth of meds, and was out the door. Wow, what a vastly different experience than back home in NYC!

Lainie and her son have had no need for major medical care while abroad but basic medical experiences have led them to feel as though quality care is near if the need ever arose. 

Luckily neither Miro nor I have required serious medical care while traveling. Neither of us had health insurance in the States due to the cost.  But somehow, we feel more comfortable accessing health care in the countries we’ve traveled to since care is certainly more affordable. For example, I cut my finger in Panama and it got infected. I went to the nearest health clinic and saw an actual doctor. He spent time looking at my finger, and really provided me with personal care. I received a shot for the swelling, antibiotics for the infection and he cleaned and wrapped my finger- all for $8. During the last 5 years health care has felt accessible to us and here, in Latin America (both Central and South America), we feel safe should we ever find ourselves in need of medical care.

There you have it. Lots of different medical experiences abroad from different corners of the earth.

Is it easy to fun to get sick abroad? No. Is it easy watching your son get wheeled into surgery in Egypt? No! But these things are never pleasant (no matter where you are) and, in the end, solid medical care can be found all over the world- usually for a fraction of the cost of the same care in the US.

So, travel on, take necessary precautions, consider buying travel insurance (especially for those trips to Mongolia!), and try to let go of fear. Nothing about travel is as scary as you think, especially medical care.