Photo: Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

How to Plan for Medical Emergencies Before Traveling

Travel Safety
by Erik McLaughlin Jan 8, 2009
Having a plan is key to ensuring your well-being while traveling abroad.

AS AN EXPEDITION physician, one of my main responsibilities is pre-planning for medical emergencies. Depending on where my team is going, I research the condition of local airstrips, what types of evacuation aircraft can land on their runways, and whether local roads are drivable.

Knowing the conditions of local hospitals, the capabilities of local health care providers and the availability of equipment is vital should someone require advanced medical care.

You don’t need to be an expedition doctor to start thinking about what you would do in the event that you need serious medical treatment, however. Consider the following:

When and where to seek medical attention?

When we’re on the road, we often wait until some nagging symptoms have worsened and the matter becomes urgent. If you need to get some help and you need it soon, there are several options and places to seek medical attention.

The most important factor to determine your options is how quickly you need assistance. Any life-threatening emergency requires help as soon as possible. Calling the local ambulance service or taking a taxi to the local hospital is a first step to take when you’re seriously ill or hurt in an urban area.

The facility where you are treated may not be up to the standards of your home country, but it’s probably better than bleeding to death on the road.

A telephone call to your local embassy often yields advice on trusted clinics and hospitals that are used by embassy staff. Embassies do not have the responsibility of providing you medical care, but can point you in the direction of where to go. Plus, speaking with someone in your native language can often calm fears.

A list of international embassies for all countries can be found here.

Taking a few minutes ahead of time to write down the local address and phone numbers of the nearest in-country embassy can save vital time when you’re looking for health care.

Remember: internet access is often limited, especially when you are trying to get help as soon as possible.

Taking a few minutes ahead of time to write down the local address and phone numbers of the nearest in-country embassy can save vital time when you’re looking for health care.

Notifying the embassy of your situation also helps keep officials aware of your status; embassy staff can also help notify family or friends back home.

Travel health Insurance

The potential for serious illnesses or injuries is exactly why travelers purchase travel health insurance. Make sure to carry your insurance policy number, membership card, and a list of contacts. Travel insurance providers often have satellite offices around the world, so carry this information, as well.

Time zones, difficulties dialing out of country, and high costs are a few reasons why it is better to call the local number when seeking help.

If you’re new to travel insurance, factors to consider when making your selection include your medical history, the types of events you are planning for your trip, and repatriation (being flown home). Not all insurance providers are equal.

The International Society of Travel Medicine maintains a wonderful list of clinics and health care providers around the world. The ISTM list can get you in touch with a local doctor who has experience treating travelers and their unique health problems. These doctors can also offer advice on local hospitals, conditions, where to buy medicine, and how to navigate payment systems.

The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) is another organization whose sole purpose is to assist travelers with staying healthy. Membership in their organization is free, although good karma is acquired by making a small donation for their effort and materials.

Membership provides access to an internet site as well as a member’s book of medical clinics specializing in treating travelers. This is an extensive list and offers resources for almost all locations on the planet.

Health care providers who offer service to IAMAT members agree to do so at a fixed rate for consultation, helping avoid the mess of international payments, insurance, and concerns of “Does my insurance cover this, or do I even have insurance?” Addresses, phone numbers and email addresses are provided in their 70-plus page book. IAMAT also features useful resources for preventing disease, vaccines and other travel health information.

The most important thing to remember is that if you feel you need medical care, seek it! Do not delay in your search for health care. There are many resources to start solving your problem. Pre-planning for the unforeseen emergency can be vital for a safe journey.


For more tips to stay healthy on the road, check out Emergency Travel Medicine: 5 Useful Remedies from Easily Found Ingredients.

Have you ever had a medical emergency while traveling? Share your story in the comments!

Discover Matador