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5 Things to Know If You're Chronically Ill and Traveling Abroad

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Travel and chronic illness don’t exactly mix. It’s bad enough facing chronic illness when you’re home and have the support of friends, family and a medical system you know. When you’re abroad, it’s a whole other level. There are no safety nets. You have to learn quickly how to navigate new medical systems in foreign countries.

I’m from Australia, home to one of the best medical systems in the world, but I travel a lot. I’ve been acutely ill (food poisoning, injury, virus, etc.) in a handful of countries in South East Asia and Africa. But it wasn’t until I became chronically ill (undiagnosed colitis) in Indonesia and Malaysia that I really had to learn how to get help abroad.

These are the five most important things I wish I’d known about facing unresolving illness abroad:

1. Find a comprehensive travel insurance policy.

This may seem obvious, but it’s one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen other travelers make time and time again. If you’re considering saving money by skipping out on insurance, think again. It’s not just necessary if you need immediate medical attention or evacuation, it is a life saver for chronic illness. My policy covered hundreds of dollars of specialist doctor’s fees and completely refunded all of the flights I took to both find better healthcare, and eventually come home. Make sure you find an insurance policy for you. If you have a pre-existing condition, find a policy that will cover it. I was careful to find a policy that included motorcycle crashes (this is often left out) and camera insurance (I carry a lot of expensive gear). If you are 100 percent fine and have never been sick in your life (this was me), don’t assume your good luck with continue. Do your research to find a good policy. Read it. Know it. Carry it with you.

2. Use your travel insurance emergency line.

It took me two months of chronic digestive dysfunction to figure out there was a team of people ready to help just a phone call away. I knew there was an emergency number but I wrongly assumed this only refereed to serious accident or immediate danger. Chronic illness is an emergency when you’re alone, abroad and untreated. The second I got hold of emergency line I had my case listened to and was patched through to medical professionals who continued to call me every few days advising my options. They also put me in touch with the most highly regarded international hospital where I could find a specialist I needed. The emergency line couldn’t provide the answers to my health problems, but they did provide logic, medical and emotional support and knowledge of what red flag symptoms to watch out for.

3. Take your health seriously – no problem is too small.

Not all chronic illness begin with big symptoms. Mine started with mild abdominal discomfort and traveler’s diarrhea. For a while I could get on with my everyday activities so it didn’t even cross my mind to get help. I now realize I needed medical help a lot earlier than I found it. Travelers move quickly and take on so many experiences. There simply isn’t time to be sick. I didn’t want to put a hold on my trip for an upset stomach, so I carried on. Not only was this damaging to my health, the travel stopped being enjoyable. It might not seem it at the time, but your health is so much more important than traveling to new places and trying new experiences.

4. Find time to search for adequate medical care.

When I get sick in Australia I know the system: call a clinic, book an appointment, bring my Medicare card and bulk bill clinics or pay small out of pocket fees. It’s quick, easy and cheap. But every country has a different system, and foreigners don’t usually have the same rules that locals do. Walk-in clinics for tourists are common. They’re great for simple things like food poisoning or minor injury, but the doctors there probably aren’t going to have the knowledge to help with a chronic illness, whether its diagnosed or not. If you’re not in a critical condition, the key is to find quality medical help. When I was in Indonesia, I found international clinics with English speaking doctors to go to. In Malaysia, I found a highly regarded gastroenterologist and paid big out of pocket fees to get in to see him quickly. In my case this still wasn’t enough, but it sure bet walk-in free clinics and at least gave me a real shot at improving my health.

5. Fly elsewhere or come home if you need to.

Don’t be afraid to do this! The healthcare in some countries may not be sufficient to support you. My insurance company advised me to fly to Singapore for the best healthcare in South East Asia. When one of my doctors suggested my condition was likely to be a serious chronic condition, I knew that my best chance for recovery was back in Australia. It’s not just the medical system and comfort of local doctors, it’s the support of friends, family and even simple things like easy transport that makes home the best option for chronic illness. Even having familiar food in hospitals made a difference! I was mortified at the thought of ending my year-long trip and coming home to all the questions from family and friends. But it was definitely the best decision I made. Had I known more about chronic illness, I would’ve come home sooner. I was looking for a treatment and cure that simply wasn’t there.

So there it is, the five things that every person abroad should know about chronic illness. While I obviously had a bad time abroad, I have never wanted to deter anyone from traveling to new and exotic places. The risk of illness overseas is higher than normal, but it’s still very small and there’s so much the world has to offer. It’s about being prepared and aware, knowing what the danger signs are, how to act and when to act. If you’re thinking of going abroad, make sure you check in with a travel expert doctor to learn how to minimize your risks. Safe travels!

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Originally published: July 19, 2017
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