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How Expats Handle Emergencies in Foreign Lands

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When it comes to navigating health-care issues in a foreign country, lots of travelers or would-be expats have a legitimate concern over the language barrier.

While there is a possibility that you could find yourself in the backwaters of Vietnam, in a lonely village in the mountains of China or Tibet, or in a hill tribe pueblo reachable only by rickety bridges, chances are you will be somewhere close to a civilized town or large city. In our decades of world travel through dozens of countries, our experience is that most medical professionals speak English, or enough English to make the transaction go smoothly.

Service is primary
In the hospitals of Thailand, we have discussed surgeries and received executive physicals, blood tests, colonoscopies, eye exams, sonograms, X-rays, and more. But we are not fluent in Thai. How were we able to communicate about such complicated topics?

Bumrungrad Hospital in Thailand.

Not only do these professional medical personnel speak English, but we are also issued a personal translator/assistant who takes us from office to office, procedure to procedure. She translates for us if necessary, keeps our paperwork together and wheels us around in the wheelchair if required. The fee for this service? About $1USD each visit.

It's not a guessing game
In other countries where we have traveled -- the Caribbean Islands, Europe, Mexico, Guatemala, Asia, South America -- dentists, doctors, eye professionals, X-ray technicians, and even massage therapists all seem to have some command of English. Remember, they know why you are in their office and they know the English words that pertain to their occupation. Many want to use their English so they may become more fluent, and they are proud to be able to speak it.

Our Guatemalan doctor was thoroughly bilingual.

Surprising to those of us from the United States, these health-care providers are actually interested in us as patients. They are concerned about our pain level and take notice if we are afraid. We are not rushed in and out of a consultation, and questions are welcomed. I have had surgeons give me a hug, anesthesiologists hold my hand, and translators comfort me.

Non-emergency services
If you are looking to book some medical travel procedures somewhere other than in your home country, there are concierge services that will do all the arranging for you. This can include transportation, doctor appointments, paperwork, making sure your current prescriptions are available, arranging lodging for you and your companion, and having translation services handy if necessary. Some will work with your doctor in your native country so you will have follow-up services in place when you return. They will also send your doctors copies of your X-rays and medical status forms and will arrange phone consultations with your foreign surgeon so everyone is on the same page.

English is the world's business language, and the probability is that in a medical situation, someone will be able to speak it. It is not out of the realm of reason for these professionals to locate a translator if it becomes warranted.

For travels in a foreign country, you can plan in advance by making a list of your prescriptions and putting that list in your purse or wallet. Also note any medications that will cause you an allergic reaction, and have a contact number of a friend or family member in case of an emergency.

When you arrive at your hotel, ask at the desk for a recommendation of a good doctor or dentist or the location of the nearest hospital. You can also request that the service personnel write down in their native tongue the address for you, and, if needed, directions for the taxi. You can show the taxi driver this note, and having this information in your possession will prove useful to you if you find yourselves in an unforeseen situation. It will also give you that little bit of security, knowing you have an acceptable place to go if you need it.

It's always in your best interest to learn some survival phrases in the language of the country you are visiting. We have these practical phrases in both Thai and in Spanish in the back of our books, and you can get free downloads of language apps from World Nomads here.

Traveling allows us to spice up our routines with a little adventure, and of course none of us wants a medical emergency. However, it is comforting to know that in most situations the "language barrier" might not be the obstruction you thought it was.

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