Dealing with a medical emergency is a stressful task wherever you are. But if your heart attack, broken hip, or jellyfish sting happens in a foreign country it can be overwhelming.
Here’s what you should do. The following is based on travel to the US, but generally it will apply to most other countries as well—except for the 911 call. (Before you go abroad, make sure to find out what the emergency number is at your destination.)
First, if the emergency appears to be life-threatening or potentially disabling, call 911 for immediate assistance and get to the closest hospital, as quickly and safely as you can. If you feel you have time to call the emergency number given by your insurer without endangering yourself, do it. The assistance personnel may advise you of where to go, and they can start their case management right away.
You will very likely be asked for your family physician’s phone or fax numbers so that case managers have some baseline information about your health and recent treatment. Make sure you have that information at hand whenever and wherever you travel.
If the emergency does not appear to be life-threatening or disabling, it might be best to go to an Urgent Care or walk-in clinic for an assessment and, if necessary, a referral. In that case make sure you get an itemized bill, listing treatment provided and medication and referral information, that you can send on to your insurer for reimbursement. Many of these clinics have doctors on-site, and more and more of them are accepting travel insurance. Certainly, ask.
If you are admitted as a hospital inpatient, you or your travel companion may be asked to sign a confirmation that you are responsible for full payment of any charges attributable to your care. This is standard confirmation asked of all patients. Don’t be frightened by it. It’s a hospital backstop and it only means that if your insurer does not pay the bill, you will be ultimately responsible. Of course, if you are uninsured, you will be required to pay, or make a deposit, or arrange for making future payments.
SPECIAL NOTE: Federal law requires all general or acute care hospitals in the US (for-profit, public, or private institutions) to provide emergency care to anyone requiring it—whether they have health insurance or not. They are allowed to refer you elsewhere once they have stabilized you, but that doesn’t happen often. And once you are in the hospital, it is very difficult to know what type of institution it is—for-profit or not. Generally, Canadians who have been treated in US hospitals are highly complimentary of the quality of care and the swiftness of service they have received.
Nobody wants to spend their vacation days in a hospital. But you shouldn’t dread the experience either. Some even like the food. But I don’t know if I would go that far.
If you have any hospital experiences you would like to share, tell us about them.