Sweaty, squinting, and red-eyed, I exited the cool waiting room’s automatic sliding glass doors. I got in the DiDi rideshare car outside the international clinic, preemptively thanked the driver, and opened my heavy paper bag of new medications: antibiotic eye drops to use every five hours, saline solution to use every six, antibiotic tablets and painkillers to take every 12, and cough medicine for whenever I felt like I couldn’t breathe. A receipt listed the out-of-pocket prices of my bloodwork appointment plus the medicines: $3,000—which I luckily didn’t have to pay thanks to the travel insurance that covered my unexpected need for healthcare abroad.
Pulling away from the small storefront of the Nanjing international clinic, we idled in traffic about a block away. I stared up at a behemoth building, a black glass skyscraper marked by red neon Chinese symbols that flashed and changed on its glass every several seconds. The parking lot was jam-packed with both cars and people.
“What’s this building?” I asked my local guide, who was accompanying me in the back seat. “A movie theater?”
She looked at me and smiled slightly: “That’s the hospital.” I felt my swollen eyes widen, and redirected them to my bag of medicinal loot.
I don’t recommend getting sick in China (as I did in mid-2019). But if you’re going to come down with bronchitis and a bacterial infection on vacation, somewhere with ample tea and warm hospitality is not a bad place for you to be. I unequivocally do recommend, however, having travel medical insurance—preferably from a company with a user-friendly app you can pre-download on your phone. It’ll afford you the luxury of entering and exiting a clinic to see an English-speaking doctor abroad in a fraction of the time that a 3,000-bed hospital would ever be able to see you.
How to Find the Right Healthcare Abroad
Because I have a medication allergy, I felt it was crucial I saw an English-speaking doctor so I could be confident in the prescription I received. While navigating the many international clinics in the college city of Nanjing, I learned a lot about how to responsibly find covered healthcare abroad. Here’s how to purchase and navigate medical travel insurance, find a good doctor or clinic, and ensure you won’t be stuck with the bill.
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Researching your insurance options and purchasing medical travel insurance coverage for your specific needs is the first step to being able to find healthcare abroad, and there are a number of things to consider. If you’re going to be participating in adventure activities like kayaking, scuba diving, or hiking, make sure you purchase a policy that doesn’t exclude “dangerous activities.” Travel insurance policies with good medical coverage will also include worst-case scenario expenses up to and including emergency medical flights home and repatriation of a body, which would otherwise cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.
You’ll also want to know the general state of medical services in your destination so you can make an informed decision in an emergency. For example, I knew public hospitals in China often have hours-long wait times, so instead I pounced on an available appointment at a private international clinic that my insurance covered.
If you aren’t familiar with the country you’re visiting, the U.S. State Department’s Consular Information Sheets are a good place to start to see what type of medical services will be available to you once you’re there. Select your country and look for the “Health” section. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has destination-specific health information, and the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides free destination-specific health information as well.
Know Your Medications
Knowing the generic/medical names of common medications can be helpful when you’re talking to a doctor about your prescriptions or hunting for over-the-counter remedies in a foreign country. Many doctors abroad speak English, but they might not know what the brand-name medication you take contains since it’s not available to their patients. Keep in mind the following generic medication names in case you need to purchase them from a pharmacy:
- Advil/Motrin= ibuprofen
- Aleve= naproxen
- Tylenol/Excedrin= acetaminophen
- Bayer, others= aspirin
- Benadryl= diphenhydramine
- Dramamine= dimenhydrinate
- Bonine= meclizine
- Pepto-Bismol= bismuth subsalicylate
- Robitussin= dextromethorphan
- Antacids= calcium carbonate, aluminum hydroxide, or magnesium hydroxide
- Imodium= loperamide
Choose a High-Tech (and 24-Hour) Medical Insurance Provider
Keep your standards high when it comes to purchasing travel medical insurance—you are paying for it, after all. Straightforward insurance that gets you healthcare abroad doesn’t need to be pricey to come with a high-tech app and 24/7 support: It’s easy to weigh options and seek out one that has both thanks to search-and-compare options like SquareMouth and InsureMyTrip.com. (Also note that, like most private insurance companies in the U.S., Medicare and Medicaid don’t cover healthcare abroad.)
The specific insurance provider you choose will probably depend on your preferences and possibly your home location, but there should be options available that have high-tech features like an app no matter where you are. My coverage for healthcare abroad was with GeoBlue, which offers an app with covered doctor listings by country and fast 24/7 phone support. If you have a credit card that offers travel insurance, read the fine print to make sure it offers the medical support you could need; if it doesn’t, buy your own separately.
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Locating the Right Doctor Abroad
The CDC lists some resources that can help you locate a doctor abroad, and states that the nearest embassy or consulate in your destination should also have doctor recommendations. But the only way to see a list of providers in your destination that are covered by your insurance is typically via the medical insurance company’s app or customer service line—which should offer 24/7 contact, in case you’re visiting somewhere with a tricky time difference. International travel clinics are usually named as such, and when in doubt you can call the office to confirm; those with bilingual doctors typically have an automated recording that will prompt you to select a language.
Payment Approval and Proof of Insurance
Approval of funds from your insurance company can be referred to as “direct payment approval” or “direct deposit approval,” and you might need this authorization sent before you even set foot in a doctor’s office. It guarantees that the insurance company will pay the provider directly so you don’t have to. Whether or not you’ll need one varies depending on the destination and type of doctor/clinic you’re visiting, but it was necessary for me in China—so I was happy to have an insurance provider that was readily available to confirm coverage to the clinic I was visiting, especially because it was 2:00 a.m. at home at the time of my appointment.
You’ll probably also need proof of insurance. Keep your insurance card, or at least a digital copy of it, handy in case you need to provide a policy number or contact info to the office you’re visiting. Many clinics require both proof of insurance and an accompanying payment approval before letting you see a doctor. And if direct payment isn’t required or doesn’t occur via your insurance provider for the healthcare you received abroad, you’ll likely need to file a claim with your insurance company as soon as you can—don’t wait too long to file one and risk finding out you’ll be billed.
Know It’s Worth It
Travel insurance can feel like a waste of money if you don’t end up using it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need it in the future. The slight chance that you might need emergency or even routine healthcare abroad makes travel medical insurance a necessity for every international trip. No one can anticipate if and when they’ll have a medical emergency, and not having coverage when you need it can be the difference between going on vacation and letting a doctor’s visit put you into debt.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Travel in the Time of COVID-19: What You Need to Know
- 5 Common Travel Insurance Questions, Answered
- 9 Over-the-Counter Medications You Should Pack for Every Trip
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.