How to Handle a Medical Emergency Abroad

Before travelling abroad it’s important to put a number of things in place to minimise the chances of a medical emergency during your trip, and ensure that you are equipped to handle one, should it occur.


How to Handle a Medical Emergency Abroad (1)Ensure you are vaccinated against all diseases that pose a threat in the area you are travelling to. If your GP surgery doesn’t have a travel clinic, you can find one near you via The International Society of Travel Medicine’s online Global Travel Clinic Directory. Allow a minimum of 6-8 weeks to begin your course of vaccinations before you travel and once they are completed, ensure you travel with your vaccination card so that others are able to check what you have been vaccinated against in the event of a medical emergency. If you are unable to communicate this information yourself, having it to hand could make all the difference when it comes to quick diagnosis and treatment.

Pack Smart

How to Handle a Medical Emergency Abroad (1)It might sound obvious, but taking the necessary essentials to safeguard yourself against potentially dangerous diseases, illnesses or accidents that you cannot avoid through vaccinations, can avoid you having to face a medical emergency during your holiday. Depending on your destination this could include plenty of insect repellent with deet, antibacterial gel, sun cream and appropriate clothing and footwear.

It’s also worth checking whether any medications you are taking are restricted in the country you are travelling to. Many people don’t realise that things allowed in the UK, including common drugs such as codeine, are banned in other countries. Get proper advice to make sure that anything you need to treat or moderate a pre-existing medical condition is allowed. If not, ask your GP about prescribing an alternative and as a general rule, travel with a prescription from your doctor explaining what you are taking and why it is necessary.

Get Decent Travel Insurance

How to Handle a Medical Emergency Abroad (2)The cost of medical treatment abroad is often hugely underestimated; a broken leg in Europe costs about £10,000 to treat and get you home, and a stay in a U.S hospital for a serious incident costs in the region of £100,000.

To ensure that you are properly supported and covered in the event of a medical emergency abroad, your insurance will need to cover the full length of your stay and any activities you want to undergo (for example, a small additional premium is usually required for activities such as white water rafting, skiing, bungee jumping and scuba diving).

It’s also crucial to declare any pre-existing medical conditions when taking out insurance; something people often fail to do. You may need to pay an additional premium, but this is generally small and will give you the peace of mind that you will be treated in the event of an emergency.

What Should I do in an Emergency Abroad?

When travelling with proper insurance you should have access to a 24/7 helpline that you should call immediately and ask which is the closest hospital that they recommend. This is really important, as the standard of medical care varies not just in different parts of the world, but in different hospitals within the same country. For example, the standard of private medical care is generally very high in Hong Kong, but you could be taken to a public hospital if you cannot prove that you have medical insurance, where the standard of care is generally far lower.

To help ensure that you are always given the appropriate standard of care, always have a copy of your insurance policy with you, keep a copy online, and make sure the people you are travelling know who you are insured with.

In the event that you are travelling with someone who does not have insurance, or they are unable to communicate and you do not know who they are insured with, it’s important to be able to act quickly to seek help in an emergency. The best thing you can do is to go to the nearest tourist attraction and ask someone working there to advise you where the nearest good quality hospital is.

How to Handle a Medical Emergency Abroad (4)

If this is not possible and you are not happy with the standard of care given in the hospital your companion is taken to, it can be tricky to arrange a transfer to another hospital if insurance details are not available. The British Consulate is generally reluctant to advise in these situations and will encourage you to seek financial assistance from family and friends, so it’s really important to have emergency contact details for the relatives of anyone you are travelling with. If you are travelling alone, make sure you carry these for yourself at all times and share them with tour guides and hotel staff as appropriate.

If you or a travel companion are treated in hospital whilst travelling, it’s also worth being aware that the level of nursing can vary in different places. For example, in some cultures it is quite normal for there to be no nursing care, because the care is traditionally given by the family. As a result nurses may not do what you expect, and you may need to chip in and care for your companion whilst they recover. However, your insurer should try to monitor treatment and ensure the appropriate treatment is received.

Ultimately, taking the necessary precautions before and during travel will minimise the chances of a medical emergency, and ensuring you and those around you know who to contact in an emergency will give you the confidence you need to enjoy your holiday.

If you have any questions or concerns about looking after your health when travelling anywhere in the world, you can ask me your questions at AXA PPP healthcare’s online travel health Q&A, on Friday 23 May 2014 from 2-4pm. Join the live Q&A or submit questions in advance at You can also tweet your questions to @AXAPPPhealth in advance, or during the Q&A.

Steve IleyThis was a Guest blog post by Steve Iley, Medical Director for Health Services at AXA PPP healthcare.

AXA PPP Healthcare



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  2. James

    How lucky are we in the UK that most of are vaccinations are free ( at the point of treatment)? I bet we save a packet! I always like to take a small first aid kit with me when I go on holiday.
    Great article with some good reminder tips for myself and probably new information for those who have not yet been abroad.

    1. Author

      I’m glad you found the article useful. The NHS sure is great, all my jabs needed for Thailand were completely free.

  3. Emma

    Thank you for this advice on health care whilst traveling. My brother is going away next month and is only 19, so you can imagine he won’t of thought of discussing this with his friend.
    I will make sure they at least pass on to each other what to do if either themselves or their friends end up in a hospital. As far as the vaccinations, my mother will make sure he does that.

    1. Author

      I hope you brother has an amazing time, where is he going? Tell him to get good travel insurance just incase something bad does happen. I’m sure he will be fine though.

      1. Emma

        Hi Jason,
        My brother is off on a holiday to Aiya Napa. He’s 19 years old and is going on one of those holidays I would deem a nightmare, it is a typical boy’s holiday with drink, women and probably a regretful tattoo. It is my idea of hell. When I am lucky enough to get away, I want to experience the country and culture.
        He still lives at home so my mother will make sure he has all his insurances done properly, as if not, it will land on them. My other brother went to Magaluf and was mugged and beaten twice in one holiday. Tourists shouldn’t be scared but should really be aware of being in someone else’s country when holidaying.
        I bet you already have a blog post about staying safe, so I’m going to hunt for it now. Thanks for replying.

        1. Author

          It’s just something young guys do I guess, I went to tenerife when I was 19. The main strips are horrible places, the amount of drunk people make it really easy for muggers. Just make sure he stays with his friends and doesn’t get too drunk and he should be fine. Although I guess getting hammered is probably his main goal.

  4. Annie Marie Peters

    Planning ahead is definitely the best strategy for dealing with a medical emergency when travelling abroad. I hadn’t even thought about taking a copy of your insurance policy. Invaluable advice, Jason!

    1. Author

      Hi Annie, it’s always a good idea to take copies of your important documents with you. Another great tip would be to keep them inside a waterproof sleeve to make sure they stay in good condition.

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