With expats embarking on an increasing numbers of short term international assignments, the challenge of addressing fragmented healthcare has become especially evident.
Relocation medical examinations are standard practice, but in many cases, may be the only medical care that expats receive until they experience a more serious health issue. Furthermore, with illness being one of the primary reasons for assignment failure, it’s more important than ever that relocating individuals and their families take steps to ensure that they stay in the best possible health.
Tips to Staying Healthy While Living Abroad
1. Keep full copies of medical records
One of the biggest problems facing expats is that of disconnected healthcare. By maintaining an individual copy of your medical records you allow new care providers to have access to accurate, up-to-date records immediately. Record requests are usually made in writing to your General Practitioner/ Primary Care Physician, and need to include your name, address, date of birth, and patient number / insurance number if you have one. They take up to six weeks to generate, so be sure to allow plenty of time before any move, and schedule your annual medical examination beforehand so that the most current results are included.
2. Be aware of local illnesses, diseases and health warnings
There are many excellent online resources, including the UK Foreign Office, the US Center for Disease Control and Australia's Smarttraveler site , all which have destination-specific information for those living and working overseas. Many people get appropriate vaccinations before they leave on assignment, but once in location, they fail to keep up with the vaccination schedule. Know what the signs and symptoms of local illnesses are, and schedule regular check-ups as soon as you find a new medical care provider. Keep in mind that your home country doctor will not necessarily be familiar with tropical diseases, so if you fall ill in your home location, inform them of any illnesses, toxins or viruses that you may have been exposed to. With children, keep in contact with the school to get an overview of common illnesses, and early warning of any communicable illnesses currently circulating.
3. Establish medical services early
Finding a doctor/dentist/paediatrician often falls into the 'important but not urgent' category, until you suddenly need emergency medical care. Make it a priority as soon as you arrive in your new location; if you have a destination consultant, ask for recommendations for doctors used to working with expats, otherwise, head over to your health insurance website where there will usually be a list of service providers. Use these resources as a starting point, and then cross reference with medical licensing boards, the HR department, online review sites, school networks such as the PTA, work colleagues and your own social networks to get understanding of their credentials, experience and standards of service. Schools will often keep an up-to-date list of medical services, so be sure to contact the school nurse directly - they usually are not allowed to make specific recommendations, but are often willing to discuss the different levels of care provided. Ensure that you visit the clinic in person before you register, and remember that you can change providers if your relationship isn't working.
4. Keep a well-stocked First Aid kit
Ensure it is easily accessible at home, and check its contents regularly. Include a list of allergies of family members and include emergency numbers, insurance details and family contact details. If possible, attend an accredited First Aid course, and if you employ household staff, encourage them to do the same. Keep an up-to-date First Aid manual with the kit, or download a basic one from the Red Cross website. In areas with less reliable healthcare, maintain stocks of sterile equipment that may be needed for emergency treatment, such as syringes, bandages, gauze and saline and list the expiry dates clearly on the outside of the box.
5. Go for an annual check-up
It's not just your own health that may have changed; treatment options, screening protocols, pharmaceutical options and vaccination schedules and even your doctor all may have changed over the intervening year, so take your annual medical exam seriously. Make a note of any changes to your health, any symptoms that you may be experiencing, and any travel plans you may have for the coming year, so that you can both assess your current health and safeguard your future one.
The good news is that expatriates have access to good healthcare in most parts of the world, so should you become ill, the need for repatriation is rare. The best outcomes, however, are reliant on you spending time and energy in making sure you have the best possible options available to you should you need them - here's hoping you never do!
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