The Essentials of Medical Treatment in a Foreign Country: Expect the Unexpected

No one wants to get sick while traveling. Heck, we don’t want to get sick when we’re at home. But if you have an accident or illness while you’re on the road, it helps to be a little bit prepared for what might greet you when you walk into the hospital or the doctor’s surgery. Getting prepared, however, isn’t always that easy.

Experiences With Doctors in Foreign Countries

If you browse the internet before your trip, you’ll easily find a thousand and one recommendations for the kind of health insurance you just have to have. What you’ll have a lot more trouble finding are any ideas about what to expect if you actually have to visit a doctor or a dentist while traveling abroad.

That’s a pity, I think, because when you’re sick or injured, the last thing you want is to be confronted with a raft of cultural curiosities that you’ve never expected. Negotiating new ways of doing things can be fun when you’re happy and healthy, but when all you want to do is get better, you want this to be simple.

If you have a chance, ask friends who’ve spent a long time abroad about their experiences with the medical system in various countries. Even if they haven’t traveled or lived in your destination, your mind will be opened to a few unusual possibilities that could at least lessen the shock value if you’re unfortunate enough to get sick while traveling.

Let me give you a couple of my own examples to help get the acclimatization started.

Dental Drama in Japan

Love getting a root canal filled? Of course not. But it’s still one step above getting an infection in said root canal after just a month or so in Japan. As I was living and working there, I asked my school for a recommendation. They sent me to a dentist who “spoke English”. Yeah, right. Not only did he not know any English after “hello”, he was so nervous about having a foreign patient that he was shaking.

Patient with Dental Dam
Fun with Dental Dams © Betsssssy

I moved on to a less terrified dentist, but found his only solution was to extract my tooth. I was pretty sure that my dentist back home wouldn’t have recommended this, so I fled the surgery (after getting some better painkilling tablets from him). I finally found another dentist who fixed me up without shaking or extracting.

Tip to take away: You might be the first foreigner a doctor or dentist has to treat, and they could be more freaked out than you. But no matter what happens, try not to consent to treatment you don’t want.

Bonus tip: I also discovered the beauty of powdered medicine in Japan. It’s apparently rare to prescribe actual solid pills or tablets, which was great for me, because I hate swallowing them. The powder doesn’t always taste that great, though.

Gallstones and Alternative Medicine in Slovakia

If you’ve got a major health problem to deal with, you really should consider returning home.

A friend of mine got sent to a (truly) English-speaking doctor in Bratislava to deal with his gallstones. He was expecting minor surgery; he got four bottles full of Chinese tablets to swallow daily for three months. And the insistent doctor wouldn’t do it any other way. (Incidentally, the tablets didn’t help).

Tip to take away: You might not get what you want. That’s the same at home, but even truer abroad. If you’ve got a major health problem to deal with, you really should consider returning home.

Specialists and Special Treatment in Germany

No matter what my problem was, my “house doctor” in Germany would send me to a specialist. Under the German health care system, specialist doctors don’t cost any more than regular general practitioners, so it’s common to get referred along. Off the top of my head, I can think of three regular check-ups that my general doctor at home would usually do, but that I got referred for in Germany.

However, if you’re lucky enough to have a decent amount of medical coverage in a country where the system is pretty socially-minded, like Germany, you might be pleasantly surprised at the services you get. After I slipped a disc in my back, I was prescribed a heap of physiotherapy, and didn’t have to pay anything at all.

Tip to take away: Remember that some countries have medical systems vastly different from yours. Sometimes that means your treatment will be even better; sometimes it means that simple things just take longer.

Hospital Corridor
© tanakawho

Expect the Unexpected

So, to sum up: expect the unexpected. Like all aspects of foreign cultures, medical systems will vary a great deal. A doctor’s surgery or a dentist’s clinic might not even look anywhere near the same. In some you’ll have to take your shoes off; in others, you might not be able to make an appointment, but just sit and wait for hours until it’s your turn.

If you’re unlucky enough to be ill while you’re traveling, try to get help as fast as you can, and then see the positive side. You’re having a typical local experience, and will no doubt have a few stories to tell after you get better. You see — getting sick is not all bad.

Have you had any interesting experiences with doctors, dentists or hospitals while you’ve been traveling? Please share the knowledge with all of us by leaving a comment below.

10 Responses

  1. Hal

    This is great, Amanda. Not something you see discussed very often.

    Again, I’ll reference my time living in Korea. It was the first time I had health insurance through a job, so I figured I might as well go to the dentist (it’d been 6 years!). They told me I needed my wisdom teeth out, and I didn’t argue. My dentist spoke great English and even had a good sense of humor. She wanted to do it in two gos, as I guess is usual for Koreans under localized anesthesia. I told her I’d rather get it over with in one, and she agreed. No problems at all, and now I can say I had my wisdom teeth out in East Asia!

    Reply
  2. Amanda Kendle

    Thanks, Hal. Yes, I was really surprised at how little information is around on it – even though sharing the experiences can help a lot of travelers out.

    Does that mean you also lost your wisdom in Korea … just kidding =)

    Reply
  3. James Grey

    I had to have a root canal wile I was living in the Middle East, it was a horrible experience.

    First I had to argue with the dentist for 20 minutes so she would open the syringe package in front of me so I could be sure that I did not get a used needle, something still done in some 3rd world countries.

    Then she did not use enough Novocain, when I asked for more she said that I would have to pay extra – before I could get more.

    After the root canal my tooth still hurt and eventually snapped in half. Fortunately I had to go to Singapore for a few days so I had it fixed there.

    Overall it cost me weeks of pain and over a grand down the drain

    Reply
  4. jenny

    i got my first check-up in japan last summer.
    it was totally different than i had expected (it took a minute to figure out the eye exam). it was overall not too terrible, but i shouldn’t have expected to be made to feel comfortable. i would have liked a little forewarning that the doctor was going to abruptly roll up to me in his chair and pull my shirt up and get the nurse to feel under my bra to check my “heartbeat.” apparently, the more discreet “stethoscope down the shirt” method hasn’t become popularized yet. the nurse also told me to lie down, then unbuttoned and unzipped my pants to feel my stomach.
    i live in a smaller town, so perhaps larger cities are different.
    i know there are japanese doctors who speak english, but they are rarities.

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  5. Amanda

    James – I feel your pain! Root canal problems are truly horrible, especially far away from home.

    Jenny – interesting experiences! No Japanese doctor ever wanted to listen to my heartbeat and now I’m glad!

    You reminded me about eye exams – I was surprised, for example, that in Germany you don’t have to read letters off a chart like we do – there are a bunch of circles that don’t quite join up and you have to explain which direction the opening of the circle points. Very tricky for me to express in another language!

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  6. Amanda

    I was in southern South Korea (Daegu area) when I had a terrible case of food poisoning/stomach virus that wouldn’t go away after 4 days. After a doctor’s appointment on a college campus where I was given an IV in a library/back room to a clinic and prescribed pink, powdery pills that did nothing for me, I went to a hospital ER. Apparently when you go to the ER in Korea, you are required to take all kinds of irrelevant tests, including an EKG (for stomach issues? seriously?). Once they admitted me, they put me in a room with five other people (no curtains), and there was no air conditioning. In the middle of summer in the south of Korea, it is in the 90s every day. They believed that air conditioning caused respiratory problems and wouldn’t turn it on. I was not allowed to have any food or water for two straight days; my IV was my only nutrient. I did get better, but it was a hellish way to do so. It was such an interesting experience, though. The whole hospital stay only cost me about $100. It was also interesting to see how they treated a hospital stay- people were admitted for seemingly minor problems, and one woman in my room even checked out to go see a movie and returned in the same day! So bizarre!

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  7. Joanne Joseph

    Amanda I found this information so interesting. I have been fortunate to have never gotten seriously ill while traveling (knock on wood). Last year I traveled to Cuba on a “person-to-person” licensed tour for medical personnel. We donated medical supplies to an emergency clinic in Varadero. Visiting the clinic was a real eye opener. It was clean, but the equipment was old and quite primitive by our standards in the USA.

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  8. Claire

    I went to India for a three week trip with my university. I am not sure what I actually had because I never was told, but I’m pretty sure it was just a case of gastroenteritis. The problem was that I was in a rural village 5 hours away from Mumbai and I have diabetes.

    After two or three days of sickness, I was taken to the local doctor and even though there was a queue of about 20-30 locals waiting to see the handful of doctors I was ushered past them and taken in to see the doctor. He gave me a prescription that was filled at the tiny pharmacy next door.

    The tablets didn’t help so another few days later after not eating very much and lazing around in the hot, humid summer sun it started to affect my diabetes so I asked if I could be taken to a “western” hospital in Mumbai. They put me on a drip and I told them I would manage my sugar levels because they had never seen an insulin pump before. So after four days and four more cannula for the IV (because my blood kept clotting at the site) I was discharged still suffering from some minor symptoms. I ended up going home from the trip a day early because I just couldn’t be there any longer.

    It was definitely an experience I reflect on a lot, and I learnt so much from it. It didn’t cost me a thing because our university had good health cover for us. I think the worst thing was that I was with 12 other students that I’d never met and didn’t really get along with any of them so it was a difficult thing to deal with on my own.

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  9. Allison

    I am so glad to see this! No one ever talks about what it’s like to go to the doctor in a foreign country! I’m living in Israel and I HATE getting sick or anything just because I don’t want to visit the doctors! First, it’s nearly impossible to find a doctor who speaks good English and truly understands you. Second, it can take forever to get an appointment! I’ll call and say that I have an infection and they will tell me that the earliest appointment is two weeks away! Third, if you don’t like your doctor you’re going to be stuck having to go to him for another three months before being allowed to switch to a different doctor. Fourth, like in the Germany example, if you go to a general practitioner (which you had to wait a week to see), expect to be passed along to a specialist doctor (and having to wait at the very least another week). And if they want you to take a blood test, expect to wait at least another week to even get the blood drawn.. And who knows how much longer until you actually get the results! And like someone said about their experience in Korea.. Don’t expect to be made to feel comfortable, if it’s winter know that it’s going to be freezing in there, summer know that you’re going to be sweating in there. The doctor is going to be rude (after all he’s a doctor and you’re not so he knows everything), they’re going to ask questions about your personal life that are irrelevant and they’re going to state their opinions (like if you have a baby before you are 30 they’re going to think its their business and ask you why on earth you would want to start a family before your eggs start going bad!!). I seriously do whatever I can to avoid going to the doctor now.. Too many bad experiences. I don’t even want to get started on the pediatricians and how awfully Dirty their offices are. The ONLY plus side is you don’t have to pay much for the crappy service!

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  10. Allison

    I just wanted to add after reading my comment that I in no way look down on people who do wait until they are 30 or older to have kids. I just hate being made to feel like a criminal for deciding to have kids before 30 by total strangers during a gynecological exam!

    Reply

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