by Amy B. Scher
Being chronically ill for much of my young adult life, I learned about “medical tourism” far before it was ever a coined term. Whenever I’d intended to travel for pleasure, I’d often end up not only visiting the tourist sites, but also a medical facility or two.
From Costa Rica to Thailand, it seemed I had a frequent visitor ticket to the medical system. And then in 2007, I took my first deliberate medical travel trip when I ventured off to India to receive a controversial stem cell treatment. From all of these medical escapades, I learned a few essential lessons that can help make any trip a success.
1. Learn about visas and travel requirements
Visas: Many countries offer medical visas as an alternative to a simple tourist visa. While this seems like an obvious option, it is always best to ask the facilitator of the clinic or medical center what type of visa is best for your situation. When I went to India, medical visas were taking exponentially longer to receive (and were harder to be approved for) than a tourist visa. Since I planned on doing some travel when I was well enough, I was able to apply for a typical tourist visa that was a breeze to get. It’s always best to get the insight of someone who knows the ins and outs of the country of travel, because they’ve likely run into all the glitches before and can spare you much hassle. If you are in a hurry, there are many rush services that are also very knowledgeable in the different types of visas and their approval procedures.
Travel requirements: Airlines typically have their own requirements as far as special documentation and accompaniment during flights for those traveling with medical conditions. While they may not always ask, I’ve heard of several instances were travelers were de-boarded for not having a physician or medical personnel accompany them on long flights-as required in some situations. If you have a ventilator or some other medical equipment, you may also be asked to show you have a backup power supply. Check with your airline for their regulations well in advance of your travel date.
2. Double up on your doctors
Although you may be traveling out of the country because your doctor at home couldn’t help you, as was true in my case, it’s still a great idea to have a U.S. physician keeping an eye on your medical care. Because you are likely to be on continuing medications and/or supplements, having a U.S. based physician acts as an extra safety catch. Names of prescription medications vary from country to country so it’s essential you proceed with extra caution concerning possible interactions with your current regimen.
Be aware that your doctor at home may also be more knowledgeable on specific strains or types of illnesses that are more common in your country of origin. The opposite though is true if you get a food borne illness, virus or infection in the country of travel. Doctors there will know which medications are most effective against their own strains.
3. Become a local
Get a cell phone and know your surroundings. Getting a local cell phone ensures you’ll always be able to get a hold of your doctor if you do venture out on your own. Memorize landmarks. The best way to explain to a taxi driver where something is in an area that’s not well marked (this rule applies to many foreign countries), is to tell them it’s “next door to….” or “about five minutes from…” It’s smart to take a business card of the hospital or facility with you on outings. That way, if you can’t communicate with a taxi driver, you can always show them the card or have them call the facility directly.
Learn which restaurants are safe to eat at. Many restaurants, especially if you’re in a tourist area, will use filtered or bottled water for their cooking. As I learned the hard way though, many won’t and you don’t want to risk getting sick. Simply asking the staff at the facility you are staying at which restaurants are safe is your best bet.
Reach out to expats. You can often find online message boards where they are happy to connect and share information about your new city with you. A great place to find friendly expats is religious services or groups. When I was in India, I found a local Jewish temple and attended a service. I don’t attend services at home, but made some great friends that night that I still keep in touch with.
4. Learn about payment before you go
Ask about how you’ll be expected to pay before it’s time to pay for a service. It can be very worrying to be asked on the spot for a large sum of money for lab work or medications. For instance, for the hospital I was at in India, you were required to pay for medications when they delivered from the local pharmacy. I was so alarmed at first, but later realized this was routine. Major diagnostic testing facilities, even in relatively poor countries, will usually allow you to use a credit card. I did this whenever possible. While I might have paid a small fee for using it out of my country (it’s a good idea to find out how much first), it was peace of mind for me — and later could be used as proof of the service, if I needed to request records.
5. Be open-minded
While traveling and receiving medical care in a new country can be scary, it can also be the adventure of a lifetime-if you’re open to it. So much of my healing came from truly embracing the culture, its people and even many of the treatment philosophies I once resisted. Trust that you’re in another country for a reason and I promise that not only will your treatment have a better chance of being successful, but you’ll come home with so much more than you paid for.
About Amy B. Scher
Amy is a bestselling author of This Is How I Save My Life (January 2013), an expert in mind-body-spirit healing and medical travel, who is often lovingly referred to as an “accidental guru.”
Amy has been featured in publications such as CNN Travel, Curve magazine, Divine Caroline, the San Francisco Book Review, and was named one of Advocate’s “40 Under 40” for 2013. She is also a frequent contributor to healthcare blogs and has appeared on TV sharing her unique views on healing. Amy is a dynamic, experienced public speaker and has presented to groups, including the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.
Most importantly, she lives by the self-created motto: “When life kicks your ass, kick back.”
If you would like to learn more about the author please visit www.amybscher.com.