When it comes to travel, life always happens when you’re making other plans. You can map out your itinerary down to the minute yet somehow still manage to sprain your ankle on a hike, strain your back under the weight of a heavy bag, or even slip and scrape your knee on a sidewalk.
And while several factors contribute to the rise of preventable injury while traveling abroad, social media plays a major role. According to the Journal of Travel Medicine, the “selfie” phenomenon has travelers staging photoshoots in off-limits dangerous terrain — all in the name of Instagram likes.
For the most part though, “It’s about bad luck and not being prepared,” says Michelle Katz, LPN, MSN, nurse practitioner and author of Healthcare for Less, 101 Health Insurance Tips, and Healthcare Made Easy.
But that shouldn’t stop you from traveling, of course. Here’s what to do in the event of an injury.
Read your insurance policy
Before your trip, read your insurance policy closely so you’re not going over the details for the first time while in the thick of a stressful situation. Once you’ve been injured, check to see if you need additional coverage, according to Katz. According to InsureMyTrip, if you’re traveling internationally 100 miles or more from home and worried about incurring unexpected medical bills, you may want travel insurance on top of your existing domestic healthcare plan.
Depending on the severity of your injury, you may want to take care of any insurance add-ons before you go to the hospital so you have a greater idea of what you’ll have to pay up front. In some cases, that might be more complicated and add proverbial salt to your wound.
“It depends on what you have, where you are going and what your current policy provides,” Katz said. “Unfortunately, if you have two policies, your current insurance policy may point the finger at your travel insurance policy and say ‘Well, you got that, so use this first.’ Your travel insurance may say ‘You have health insurance, so use that first.’ So again, read your policy and the rules and get everything in writing.” She said it also helps to speak to an actual customer service representative on the phone to help clear up any confusion.
Though you can’t plan for every incident, you can be more prepared to be in the best situation possible if the worst occurs. According to Katz, that includes understanding your coverage, informing your insurer of your travel plans, packing an emergency kit, checking the names of the medication you use in a foreign country and locating your destination’s medical clinics ahead of time. “I would also look at the reviews online and ask friends and people you trust what their experience was if something happened to them. I guarantee someone knows someone that had an incident overseas that can help guide you. But do this ahead of your trip,” she said.
Don’t panic if you are injured
It’s easy to jump into hysterics when you’ve been injured abroad in a country where you are unfamiliar with the health care system. Your first order of business is to remain calm, said Katz, since care outside the U.S. is often world-class.
Remaining calm is also another way to reclaim control over the situation. When you’re under stress, your sympathetic nervous system — or fight-or-flight response — stimulates the stress hormone cortisol in the body. Research from the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found this hormone can promote cognitive impairment and memory loss, which are both unhelpful in a stressful situation.
Contact your embassy and ask trusted locals
The U.S. embassy is a great resource in the event of a medical emergency. They can help point you in the direction of a local healthcare facility, inform family members of your incident and help transfer funds overseas to facilitate payments. You can reach any U.S. embassy worldwide here.
And of course, locals can be equally intimately familiar with your region, according to Katz. “Many times the hotel will have someone that can help translate for you and guide you through the process and best place to go,” she said.
Access a healthcare facility
No matter your ailment, it’s wise to seek some form of medical attention. Not sure where to start? Loading a few apps onto your phone before you travel can help. The First Aid: American Red Cross app allows you to select your injury, from broken bones to a head injury, for a step-by-step plan on what to do next. While it’s helpful to keep a list of emergency numbers on you for the locations you’re traveling to, SirenGPS notifies first responders of your exact location, absolving you of that extra step of explaining where in said foreign country you are so they can retrieve you in time. Then, the ICE app allows healthcare professionals to access your medical and insurance information in multiple languages without the need for your passcode. The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers also provides a comprehensive database of English-speaking clinics and doctors in your region. The level of care you then receive will largely depend on your ailment, according to Katz.
In many scenarios, Katz said, private hospitals are often reserved for citizens only, but a public hospital might be even cheaper and just as effective. “There is also no ‘choosing’ when you are in a life-and-death situation,” she added.
Whether you feel more comfortable with the level of care you receive at home or prefer to be in the presence of loved ones, it might be tempting to cut your trip short in the wake of an injury. But you should always listen to the advice of your healthcare practitioner before making any rash decisions.
“Bottom line is to use common sense. If it is a life-and-death situation, you need to go to the nearest facility because you might be dead before you get flown home,” Katz said.
Once you’ve received medical care, retain any documentation of your visit. “If you do need to make changes to your policy after your hospital visit, some policies will reimburse you if you save your receipts and charts and submit them correctly,” Katz said.
While nothing can stop an unexpected, unpreventable injury from happening, knowing these things in advance will at least be one less thing to worry about should an injury disrupt your vacation.