You’re having a great trip and then, boom, you fall off your bicycle and break your leg. Just ask Secretary of State John Kerry, who did just that in France recently and had to cancel the rest of his European diplomatic trip.
On the advice of his physicians, Kerry, 71, was flown back to Boston for medical treatment. But what happens if you have an accident or fall ill while abroad and you’re not an important government official? How can you prepare before you go?
Most of us know to get the proper vaccinations before we travel and to bring along medicines to help with tummy troubles and other maladies, but that’s not the whole picture.
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“Everyone thinks the most likely reason they are going to die on a trip is infectious disease,” Frank James, M.D., medical director of Travel Medicine Northwest in Bellingham, Wash., and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington, told the Wall Street Journal. Unfortunately, the more likely causes of death include being struck by a motor vehicle, being the victim of a violent crime or having a heart attack or stroke, he said.
Granted, the vast majority of us travel without serious incident. Last year, Americans took 1.7 billion leisure trips, according to the U.S. Travel Association, an industry group. Compare that with the latest government statistics, which show that 803 Americans died abroad from “non-natural” causes from 2013 to 2014, of which the biggest number (213) of deaths were due to road traffic crashes.
David John, the past chair of geriatric emergency medicine at the American College of Emergency Physicians and currently an emergency physician in Stafford, Conn., urges his patients who are planning a trip to prepare for unexpected health problems. He gave us these tips for older adults traveling abroad.
Have a pre-trip checkup with your doctor to be sure you’re healthy enough to travel, especially if you have a chronic condition. “Unfortunately, I’ve had to stop people from flying the next day because they had an ailment that made it unsafe to travel,” John said.
Put your medical history on a flash drive because it’s small and easy to keep with you. Make sure it includes all the medications you’re taking, any allergies you have, plus contact numbers. Make a flash drive for a traveling companion as well. You can keep it on a key chain, John suggested.
Or print out your medical history and make several copies — one for your suitcase, one to keep with you and one for a traveling companion in case you’re unable to communicate — “something that’s unfortunately more likely to happen during a health emergency among those who are 55-plus,” he said.
Bring along extra prescription pills in case there’s an unexpected travel delay. Remember to keep any prescription drugs in their original containers with their prescription labels so that airport security will know they are legal prescription drugs.
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Get travel insurance. A foot injury while traveling, said John, “taught me the hard way that your personal insurance doesn’t cover your medical emergencies abroad.” He now encourages his patients to be sure they’re covered, in case they need to see a doctor or be hospitalized during an international trip. Generally, personal insurance, including Medicare, doesn’t cover health care expenses abroad, although there are some limited exceptions. Check your policy. If you buy travel insurance, be sure to ask about coverage for preexisting conditions.
Check out helpful government websites and mobile apps beforehand. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the State Department are two good resources. The CDC has a Travelers’ Health site full of advice and information, including official travel-health notices. Its mobile app TravWell can help you make to-do and packing lists and store your medical information. If you’re worried about eating something that could land you in the bathroom for several days, there’s even a CDC Can I Eat This? app to help you decide how risky that food or beverage might be. The State Department also has its Smart Traveler app, with alerts and maps, and the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program — a good way to enroll your trip with the nearest embassy or consulate, which can help you receive safety notices and help the embassy and your family contact you in case of an emergency.
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