Most people in the U.S. know to call 911 during a medical emergency, but they may not know what to dial during a health crisis abroad.
Students getting ready to earn a degree overseas should know the emergency contact numbers in their host country and learn about other health resources, say travel medicine and study abroad experts. “Preparation, planning and knowledge in advance of departure is so, so important,” says Mike Kelly, CEO of travel risk management company On Call International.
International students will face different types of health threats, such as infectious diseases or hazardous road conditions, depending on their destination. Here are some ways students can prepare for medical emergencies abroad.
• Evaluate health insurance needs: The amount of international coverage offered by insurance plans varies. For instance, students holding a European health insurance card can access reduced-cost, state-provided medical care in any of the European Economic Area countries, plus Switzerland.
On the other hand, U.S. insurance plans generally aren’t accepted abroad, says Robyn Prinz, a consular officer at the U.S. Department of State. Prinz provides support to the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management personnel at U.S. embassies in Belize, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela.
Students should watch out for limitations and exclusions in policies they are considering, says Tullia Marcolongo, executive director of IAMAT – International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, headquartered in Toronto, Canada. “Some policies have exclusions on certain types of activities,” she says. “So if you plan to do zip lining or, for example, horseback riding, you may not be covered.”
Students may also want to consider medical evacuation insurance, as the cost of transport to another country for medical care can be hefty. For example, an evacuation to the U.S. can cost $50,000 or more, according to the State Department.
Medical evacuations may be covered in some health insurance plans, says Prinz, but students will need to ask their providers.
• Have a communication plan: International students should be equipped with a cell phone and emergency contact numbers, say experts. The State Department has information on how to call the police, an ambulance and the fire department in different countries. Students can store these and other important phone numbers in a cell phone or write them on an emergency information card, such as the one available onStudentsAbroad.com, a resource provided by the Center for Global Education at California State University—Dominguez Hills.
Additionally, students should know how to get in touch with their home country’s embassy or consulate. Some nations, such as Australia, Canada, France and the U.S., encourage citizens traveling abroad to register their trips. This allows governments to contact citizens in the event of an emergency in their host country or a family emergency back home.
U.S. students can register online through the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
• Research the health hazards particular to a host country: Organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and Marcolongo’s organization IAMAT offer a wealth of information on diseases and other health hazards prevalent in certain countries. These organizations, as well as medical professionals, can offer advice about vaccinations and other preventative measures.
International students should also investigate road safety conditions in their destination country. Road traffic accidents are among the leading causes of death for travelers, according to the WHO.
“You really need to become an informed consumer,” says Rochelle Sobel, president of the Association for Safe International Road Travel. “You need to know and do research as to what are the best methods of transport in particular countries.”
According to Sobel’s association, some basic road-travel precautions all travelers can take include avoiding night travel in countries with poor safety records; using seat belts, even in taxis; and learning about a country’s unwritten local “road culture,” such as how people usually cross the street.
The State Department includes road safety information on its country information pages. Other organizations also offer or sell reports.
• Locate accessible medical facilities: Students and parents can research hospitals, pharmacies and other medical facilities located near international university campuses. Marcolongo recommends looking into, among other things, what languages the doctors at each medical facility speak.
Embassies and consulates, health insurance providers and other organizations can provide information about where students can go for medical treatment.
It’s not just students who need to be prepared to act in the event of a medical emergency overseas – parents should be ready to mobilize too. Kelly, of On Call International, says it’s important for at least one parent to have a valid passport in case they need to travel to be with an injured student.