What Canadian Travelers Can Do to Avoid High Medical Costs Abroad

One of my closest family members passed away from a heart attack while spending the winter in Arizona. Once the initial shock had worn off, the remaining family then had to deal with all the realities of a death in the family but compounded by the fact that the death had occurred in a different country. His wife not only had to get his body home and start the process of selling their property there, but she also had to face the very real possibility that their travel medical insurance would not cover all of the ambulance, hospital and cremation expenses.

On the one hand, we baby boomers are now in a position to enjoy the fruits of our labours, and we want to be able to travel and avoid the rigors of the Canadian winter. But on the other hand, we have all reached an age where we could suddenly find ourselves hospitalized or under a doctor's care for a serious health problem. Even the healthiest person can be stricken with an unexpected health crisis after the age of 60. So how can you indulge your passion for travel while providing for unexpected medical emergencies without having to pay through the nose?

What you need to do before you leave

1. Talk to a health care professional a couple of months before you leave to find out what vaccinations are recommended for your intended destination. Remember that some vaccinations need to be administered well ahead of departure time. Your doctor may also consider it advisable for you to have a flu shot or pneumonia shot before you travel. Keep a copy of your immunization record with your medical documents.

2. Keep up to date on any new health notifications for your destination. Check the World Health Organization and the Government of Canada websites for timely travel health notices.

3. See your doctor to make sure you are in good health. If you have a pre-existing medical condition, your doctor may need to clear you for travel. Failure to get this clearance could invalidate your travel medical insurance policy!

4. Speaking of that travel medical policy, you need additional insurance. Your provincial health care will not cover all the costs. I once had an abscessed tooth on Maui. The final bill was $4,000 and Alberta Health Care covered exactly $100 of that amount.

  • Look for the most inclusive coverage available, that will cover not only hospital expenses but visits to doctors and practitioners, prescription drugs and treatments such as physiotherapy.
  • Answer all health questions fully, completely and truthfully. Disclose any pre-existing conditions you have and any medication you take, no matter how trivial it may seem.
  • Read your policy carefully and talk to your broker about any questions or concerns you have.
  • BE ABSOLUTELY SURE OF WHAT YOUR COVERAGE LIMITS ARE. Do not make assumptions. Having worked at an insurance brokerage, I can tell you that insurance companies will look for any and every reason to deny your claim.
  • Make a list of the insurance company's emergency contact numbers in the country/countries you are traveling in.

5. In addition to travel medical coverage, you should also purchase trip cancellation insurance. If you become ill before you leave (even if it's "just a cold"), ask your doctor if you should postpone traveling until you're feeling better. Airlines have the right to refuse to allow you onto the plane if you're visibly unwell.

6. If your medical condition will require treatment, medication or therapy while you're abroad, make arrangements for this before you leave. This will ensure that the treatment you need is available, and you will also have an idea of the costs beforehand.

What to do upon departure

7. If you take prescription medication, keep it in the original packaging with all the details on it. Take a copy of the prescription from your doctor with you to avoid problems with Border Security. You are allowed to carry your precription meds in your carry-on but you will need to prove that you actually have been prescribed the medication you're carrying. However, some OTC medications and supplements are restricted or prohibited in other countries. Make sure these are allowed before you try to take them across an international border. 

8. Keep a list with your travel documents of your medications and dosage, your doctor's contact information, your blood type, any pre-existing medical conditions and any allergies you have. If you do have a pre-existing condition, carry a copy of your medical record with you as well.

9. Contact the Canadian Embassy when you arrive to get information about medical services and facilities in the area. They will also be able to help you if an emergency occurs and you need to be evacuated or evacuate a family member for medical reasons.

10. If you have a condition that may require special attention - including allergies - wear a MedicAlert bracelet.

11. Once you arrive, allow some time for your body to recover from jet lag and acclimatize to the temperature, humidity, altitude, and other conditions of your destination.

12. If you are a "medical tourist" traveling specifically for lower priced medical treatments in another country, understand that there may be additional risks due to language issues, highly resistant bacteria, poor quality medication, unqualified practitioners and lower standards of hygiene. If your treatment includes surgery, you will also be at higher risk for blood clots during your flight home.

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