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Medical care around the world: key considerations

Whether you have a pre-existing medical condition or not, it is important to know what to do should you need medical attention abroad. Getting the right treatment or prescription that you need can be tricky when you’re in an unfamiliar country or aren’t near local amenities. This article will give you all the advice and information that you need should you require medical help abroad.

Medical care in the UK

In the UK we are served by the NHS when it comes to medical emergencies. Starting up in 1948, the NHS serves over 1 million people every 36 hours! If you are between the ages of 18 and 60, you will have to pay for prescriptions from the NHS (exceptions are available here) so make sure you know what it is you need during your time away.
We recommend travelling with one or two copies of your prescription in case you need medication while you’re travelling. Carrying these will enable any local doctors to help treat you should you require more of your medication or need emergency help. We also recommend asking your doctor to write a letter which outlines your prescribed medication including any general names that there might be for them (they may be called something different in other countries).

Before you travel

Before you set off on your travels, you will need to check with your GP to find out if they will prescribe enough medication for your trip. Usually they will only do this if they feel that you will need the medication while you’re away. In some cases, if your GP agrees that you may need your medication while you’re away, they may give you a private prescription which means you will need to pay for it.
When packing your medication, ensure you have enough to last the full length of your trip including several extras in case your flight gets delayed, some get lost, or there are any other hiccups in your journey. Make sure that you pack your medication in your hand luggage in case your suitcase gets lost, you don’t want to be without it!

Specialist and prescription medication

You will need to check before you go that you can take your special medication into the country you’re travelling to. Some countries have bans on certain drugs, and the last thing you want is to have your medication confiscated! This also goes for checking the maximum quantity of your medication you’re allowed to take as some countries have a controlled limit that you can bring with you.
If you need to take any medical equipment with you, for example needles or syringes, keep them in their original correctly labelled packages with your medicine, as well as a copy of your prescription. You should also ensure that your medicines will stay in date during your trip. If your medicine has special requirements, such as having to be kept at room temperature or in a fridge, you should ask your pharmacist for advice. Travelling to hot countries with medicine with these requirements can require special attention so it is always wise to take precautions such as storing in an ice pack or cool bag for hot countries.

In case of emergencies

If you find yourself in a medical emergency, the best thing to do is not to panic as you could end up causing yourself more harm. In the UK, ambulances and treatment are free on the NHS; however this is not the case in other countries. Countries such as the USA charge for ambulance callouts and you could find yourself with a large bill should you not know about this.
If you are a UK citizen, ensure you have your EHIC card with you while travelling as this entitles you to discounted or sometimes free treatment in the European Economic Area (EEA). This includes countries in Europe, including Switzerland and will cover you until you return to the UK. However, it is important to remember that this isn’t an alternative to travel insurance. It won’t cover you if you need to fly back to the UK or need rescuing from mountain ranges, nor will it cover lost and stolen property.
It is also a good idea to keep some money in a bank account or on a credit card, in case you incur any charges should you get into medical trouble. This way you can pay off any hospital or transport bills that you may need once you’re out there.

Language Barriers

When travelling to a foreign country, it is always a good idea to learn a few phrases to help you when you’re there. This can be very beneficial if you get into a medical emergency or require assistance as a small amount of the local language can go a long way.
Learning to ask individuals if they speak English or if there is someone you can speak to who knows the language will help you greatly. In more tourist heavy areas you will be able to find someone that you can speak to, as a lot of places will use the English language. Ask your doctor to write down your medication and any allergies that you might have so that you can show these to a medical profession whilst abroad. You can also research before you go to see if these have other names in other countries.

Key considerations by continent

When you are travelling to another country, you should always check the countries’ healthcare costs and services. Checking for any recent outbreaks or epidemics will also prove useful as there may be some extra precautions that you need to take.


Healthcare in Europe is provided via a different range of systems, all of which are funded primarily through public taxation. As previously mentioned, often European countries offer their citizens EHIC cards which allows them to obtain free or subsidised medical assistance in other European countries.
It is important to note that possession of an EHIC card will not always cover you for medical costs incurred whilst abroad. Having a travel insurance policy can also protect you from the expensive costs of ambulances, the costs if you have to stay overnight in hospital and some tests which would otherwise contribute towards a hefty medical bill, even though your EHIC card could ‘pay’ for the emergency treatment.


When visiting Asia, mosquito-borne diseases are the most common ailment that travellers pick up. Diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis are among the illnesses that you won’t find at home but can pick up in Asian countries. We recommend that you take out travel insurance for when you travel to any Asian country as you will be required to pay for treatment if you require it. You will also need vaccinations before travelling to Asia. It is best to consult your doctor at least two months before travelling to ensure you receive all jabs you need.
To avoid being bitten by insects, it is best to ensure you’re covered with light clothing around dusk and dawn as this is when mosquitos are most prevalent. You should also wear a mosquito repellent and keep it with you in order to reapply on a regular basis. In your accommodation, make sure that you have mosquito nets around your bed for when you sleep or ensure that there are mosquito screens on your windows. You should also only drink bottled water as most of the local water in Asia is unsafe to drink.


The Australian Government has signed Reciprocal Healthcare Agreements with the UK which means if you are a UK citizen and have applied for a Subclass Visa 410 before 1 December 1998, you are covered for the duration of your stay in Australia.
This healthcare will cover you for any necessary medical attention – for example if you fall ill or injure yourself when in the country. You will also have access to subsidised medicine (under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS)) as well as Medicare benefits for out-of-hospital treatment, such as the doctors.
If you did not apply for a Subclass Visa 410 before 1 December 1998 then you will need to take out travel insurance for your trip in order to cover yourself in case of accidental injury or illness.


You will need to pay for any medical treatment while in Africa, so it is important that you have travel insurance which will cover your health, as well as any emergency funds in case you are required to pay any bills. You should also contact your GP two months before travelling in order to obtain the right vaccinations for the area of Africa you are visiting.
Water in Africa (depending on which area you are visiting) is sometimes not safe to drink. If you’re unsure then you should stick to bottled water that you are familiar with. You should also carry mosquito repellent with you in order to avoid malaria. You should also familiarise yourself with the most recent epidemics in the area you’re visiting. For example, Ebola and HIV are very common in parts of Africa so it is important that you know what signs to look for should you feel unwell.

USA and Caribbean

In the USA and the Caribbean you will be required to pay for any medical assistance that you may need. This includes medication, ambulances and hospital treatment. It is highly recommended that you take out travel insurance when you travel to these destinations as healthcare costs can be very pricy. For example, in the USA, ambulance call out costs can range anywhere from hundreds to sometimes thousands of dollars. You should also be sure to check when your travel insurance covers you. Sometimes you won’t be covered if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
There are occasional breakouts in some places in America – for example mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus (WNV). These can also spread to the Caribbean, where viruses such as Chikungunya are a common problem.

North America

You will need to pay for any medical attention in North America, the same as you would with mainland America. Malaria is not a threat in North America unless you have contracted it elsewhere. We advise that you consult your GP 8 weeks before travelling in case there are any vaccinations that you may require, such as tetanus.

Cruise ships

If you become ill on a cruise ship you may feel like you’re helpless, but this isn’t the case. When boarding your ship, make it known to the medical team if you have any medication that you need to take or have any special health requirements. If you have an accident or suddenly feel unwell, you should consult a member of staff immediately and they will be able to help you.
Most cruise ships have a fully equipped team of medical professionals who can help you in an emergency. Cruise ships have equipment such as x-ray machines, ventilators and will also be able to do blood tests. However, more advanced technology such as MRI and CT scans are not readily available. If you need these you may be air-lifted to the nearest hospital. For more information on cruise ship health emergencies, consult our page here.

In summary

In summary, we recommend consulting your local GP before travelling to another country, to ensure that there are no vaccinations that you require. You should also take copies of your prescriptions to prove they are yours and to help any pharmacies or doctors whilst you are on your trip. You should also check where your EHIC card is valid and take out a good level of travel insurance that will cover you and your pre-existing medical conditions.

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