Seeking Medical
Care Abroad

Doctor Stethoscope White Coat Green Background

Needing medical attention while traveling abroad is something that, while we would rather just hope never happens, is essential to give some thought to before boarding your first international flight.

Accidents happen, people get sick, and injuries occur to the even most careful. These things take no notice of where you are or how far you are from your primary care physician or your insurance “in-network” providers. With that in mind, here’s a quick guide to help guide your preparation process.

Be Prepared

Perhaps the best advantage you can give yourself is doing a bit of pre-planning about health care before leaving for your trip. This starts with a call to your insurance provider. Ask them to review your policy with you as it relates to travel through the countries that you intended to visit. Ask them how best to seek covered medical care, and how billing works during travels abroad. 

If the answers aren’t easily obtainable, clear-cut, and simple, you may want to consider other options. In these cases, it is advisable to look into travel insurance. These policies will cover your medical bills during your trip for what is typically a very reasonable fee. Grand European Travel offers an attractive travel protection plan for all of our guests. Read about it here.

If you have a delicate medical history, it’s a very good idea to create a printout card or paper with any major medical concerns that you have that will be kept on your person at all times. New doctors, especially in an emergency situation, won’t have access to your medical history, and you may not be able to tell them. Notating severe allergies and previous surgeries, if you have a pacemaker, or are diabetic, could be lifesaving information to have easily available.

  • It’s also a good idea to list contact people on this sheet, both those traveling with you and someone back at home.
  • Experts will also advise you to create a list of contacts to have either in your day bag, or with your belongings. This list should include:
  • Contact information of people both traveling with you, and back home
  • Your primary care physician’s name and phone number
  • Your standard insurance information (don’t forget to pack your card, or make a photocopy of it for this list)
  • Your travel insurance information, if you purchased it
  • Contact information for the US Embassy in each country you plan to travel to

In an Emergency

Occurrences that may mandate an emergency room visit on your trip could include:

  • A gastrointestinal event- stomach flu
  • Cardiovascular event- heart attack
  • Respiratory distress
  • Neurological events
  • Physical injury or trauma
  • Severe allergic reactions

In many countries, a 911 equivalent does exist and is reachable by dialing 112 from your cell phone. You can also ask for help in contacting emergency medical services from locals. Typically the best people to ask are those directly involved in the travel industry, as they likely speak English and will understand what you need despite your probably panic.

Chances are good that an emergency event will wind up being costly, and that you’ll likely need to provide payment before being discharged. For this reason, it is incredibly important that you obtain and keep an itemized copy of your bill. When you return home, this bill can be submitted to your insurance provider for consideration. While they may cover only some, or potentially none, of the costs, it is absolutely worth it to try and recoup some of your expenses. In addition, your follow-up doctor back home will likely want to see exactly what care you received as a result of the medical event. This itemized bill can give them a good glimpse into how you were treated.

A Good Tip!


Not all countries will recognize American brand names of most over-the-counter medications. For example, they may not be familiar with Tylenol, but will have plenty of Acetaminophen on hand. It’s a great idea to familiarize yourself with both the name brand and generic title of each medication you may want to pick up.

Don’t want to memorize all the drug names? No problem. Simply download the “Convert Drugs Premium” app to your smartphone. It’s free and able to translate common drug names in 11 different languages for their equivalent medication in more than 200 countries.

Seeking a Pharmacy

The American standard is to first seek a doctor, then find a pharmacy. In most of Europe, things are a bit different. Most Europeans start by seeking out a pharmacy for non-essential medical help. In Europe, most pharmacists are permitted to hear complaints, issue diagnosis, and prescribe remedies. Their reach covers a wide variety of the most common complaints including:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Stomach flu
  • Rashes
  • Muscle/joint pain

You should take note that medications in Europe are usually a different strength than what is offered in the US, so pay close attention to dosage directions.

With at least a handful of 24-hour pharmacies in most countries, chances are you’ll be able to get non-essential care whenever you need it, and for a fraction of the price you’d expect in the US. If the pharmacist can’t help you, he or she will then recommend you to a general doctor.

In a Non-Emergency

First, consider seeking a pharmacist. As mentioned above, most pharmacists in Europe are able to diagnose and treat non-emergency ailments. A doctor will also likely send you to a pharmacist if you attempt to see care from a non-emergency clinic before seeking out a pharmacist.

If you do wind up with a necessity to visit a doctor vs. a pharmacist, know that you’re seeking a “clinic.” This process operates much like a trip to a primary care physician in the US; You’ll sign in and take a seat in a waiting room. These visits typically carry a small fee that is due prior to being seen by the doctor.

Other situations that would require a non-emergency visit typically apply mostly to those with pre-existing health conditions. For example, pregnant women on extended travels

or those needing regular dialysis would need to identify an appropriate clinic and make appointments well in advance of travel.

However, if you do think you need to see a medical professional, just as in an emergency situation, you’ll want to keep all of your itemized bills. Submitting these to insurance upon your return home could wind up netting you a nice refund if any of the services wound up being covered.

Get Smart

Finally, take a few minutes to add a few apps to your smartphone before the trip. Apps like iTriage and TravelSmart will be able to help you pinpoint medical assistance no matter where you are, and may even be able to inform you if your insurance is accepted at these locations. Both apps are free of charge and widely available.

In addition, consider keeping a language translator on your phone as well. Google Translate will allow you to quickly turn English into any other language via text so that you’re able to communicate with the medical staff quickly and without a language barrier.

Finally, consider checking The U.S. State Department’s or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s website before your trip. They maintain a database of medical services available in each country to help guide your knowledge.