When traveling internationally, one should not only expect the unexpected but be prepared for it. When a medical procedure is thrown into the mix, the typical hazards of international travel take on a new level of concern and entirely new dangers arise. However, with proper education and planning, the dangers of international medical travel can be minimized to make for a successful, healthy and fun journey.
Dr. Casey Chosewood, Senior Medical Officer for WorkLife Programs at the Center for Disease Control, and Dr. Myles Druckman, Vice President of Medical Services at International SOS, both gave detailed presentations at this year’s World Medical Tourism and Global Health Congress about practicing safe international travel while being prepared for the unexpected. Through their expert advice, hazardous travel factors like disease and disasters become much more manageable.
According to the numbers cited in Dr. Chosewood’s presentation, an estimated 1.5 million Americans traveled outside of the U.S. for medical care in 2008 for, mostly commonly, dentistry, reproductive procedures and surgeries. With such a large number of medical travelers coming from America alone, medical tourism is no longer being shrugged off by insurance companies, travel agencies and medical centers as a minor, passing fad.
As players in the travel and tourism industries begin to acknowledge, assess and become involved in medical tourism, medical travelers, said Dr. Chosewood. This can be done by learning about destination-specific health risks around the world, such as communicable diseases, cultural issues and political unrest, in combination with acknowledging health risks related to travel and providing resources and education to medical travelers.
Dr. Chosewood also advised that travelers take charge of their own health and safety as well, through education, preparation and prevention. Travelers should always be fully aware of the health risks of the area to which they are traveling, and take precautions to avoid them. According to Dr. Chosewood’s presentation, the best way to do this is by optimizing personal health prior to travel, being open and honest with medical providers and travel planners, obtaining proper immunizations prior to travel, seek out accredited facilities with high safety records, develop a game plan for unexpected events and arrange for follow-up care in your home country before you depart.
The importance of selecting an accredited facility is paramount – by choosing a medical center that has proven itself through the Joint Commission International (JCI) or another comparable accrediting body, medical travelers will lower their risk of exposure to viral and bacterial infections like MRSA, drug-resistant TB, SARS, influenza and other communicable life-threatening illnesses.
“We all know that any accreditation process, from the very minimal to the most complex to attain, is not 100 percent foolproof,” Dr. Chosewood said. “Even under the most ideal circumstances, people will have adverse health events. There’s a human factor to medical care: it’s not only a science, medical care is an art as well. Accreditation is the strongest instrument we have to ensure continuous quality improvement and is a vital, important step.”
Despite a traveler’s best efforts, it is still possible they could find themselves in a situation similar to the one that occurred in Mexico just last year, with the outbreak of the H1N1 virus, commonly mislabeled as the “Swine Flu.” In such situations, the best course of action is to practice thorough preventative hygiene and depart from the area as soon as possible. However, with 280 CDC public health officials in over 50 different countries, medical travelers can utilize the CDC, as well as other organizations like Red Cross and WHO, as a resource when preparing for a trip, monitoring the public health status of their destination up until their arrival and during their stay.
Over the past decade, it seems our planet has been riddled with natural disasters. From tsunamis and hurricanes to earthquakes and volcanoes, there is little that can stand in the way of Nature’s awesome force. In some cases, early notice of an upcoming or potential disaster can allow medical tourists to change their plans and avoid flying or sailing into harm’s way, but most of the time floods, fires and other catastrophic events occur without warning.
“Was it just a crazy year, or is there more to come?” said Susan Silfen of Fairmont Specialty. “In the travel insurance industry, we’re used to hurricanes and snow – we know it’s going to happen. But what happens when you have a volcanic eruption?”
The large earthquake that racked the already struggling infrastructure of Haiti earlier this year is a tragic example of the suddenness which disasters can occur. According to Dr. Druckman’s presentation, the quake resulted in thousands of immediate fatalities and thousands more due to the shortage of medical and emergency response.
Another example brought up by Dr. Druckman was the March 20, 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland. Though the eruption had nowhere near the devastating effect of the quake in Haiti, it did have an adverse effect on travel in most of Europe for days after due to the large clouds of ash and debris which made flight to or from the area impossible. This event left travelers stranded, presumably some of whom may have been traveling for medical reasons.
Dr. Druckman explained that natural disasters, in every form, are a significant threat to the health and safety of travelers, and that it is the responsibility of multinational corporations, travel facilitators and medical centers to take the proper precautions and preventative measures to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Dr. Druckman advised creating a detailed response plan that includes an effective method of distributing real-time information and tracking travelers and expatriates, an evacuation plan, supplies of updated personal protective equipment (such as gas masks, flashlights and first-aid gear), and pre-prepared internal communications.
Travelers themselves should take the opportunity to research and devise plans that safely address emergency situations, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, should those events actually occur during travel, said Dr. Druckman.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Aside from basic safety precautions, a medical tourists most effective method of self-protection is staying as informed and educated as possible prior to and throughout their trip. Communicating failures and successes as an entire community of medical and travel providers and consumers is key to the development of safer and sounder world travel.
“Learn from each other; share your wins, share your experiences,” Dr. Chosewood said.
About the Author
Cayla Lambier is a recent graduate of Washington State University and possesses Bachelors degrees in both Communication, with an emphasis on journalism, and English. She considers herself to be an incredibly versatile writer, with several years of professional experience ranging from reporting and magazine editing, to public relations and technical writing. Cayla is currently engaged as an editorial intern with the Seattle branch of Where Magazine and as a freelance staff writer for Medical Tourism Magazine