While none of us ever plan to have a medical emergency, it’s too late to plan for one once it happens, especially when traveling abroad.
Most of us know someone with a story to tell. It just might be you. There are enough challenges to obtaining medical care while overseas without even talking about the problem of a language barrier. Fact: if you are unprepared to deal with the language barrier when your medical emergency comes, it can change your crisis into a complete disaster.
How can one be prepared and plan ahead? Below, our advisor Dr. DeLange explains from personal experience…
Your smartphone, with the right apps and pre-loaded personal health information, can save your life. At a minimum, it can communicate accurate medical history – heaven forbid you know that your right lower torso pain is a kidney stone based on your past experience, but the local hospital wants to operate on you immediately for appendicitis.
Personal Story: In 2009, while leading a humanitarian expedition to Northern Guatemala, I became severely ill, with fevers up to 106ºF, vomiting, dysentery, and severe dehydration. This was later confirmed to be both dengue fever and malaria vivax, which I had – both at the same time. I was in the best shape of my life, having recently run a half-marathon in 1 hour 34 minutes, so I never thought I could get that sick.
If I hadn’t been fluent in Spanish, I would have been in big trouble in conveying what was wrong with me to the clinic physician, and the right tests and therapy might not have been ordered. Or, if I was too sick to communicate effectively, my travel companions would not have had any way to convey in Spanish what was going on with me. Fortunately, I received the care I needed with just one survivable problem – I left the country with the best vein in my left arm completely destroyed due to a medication pushed too fast via needle injection.
Luckily in this situation, there were no major communication barriers. However, had I been an elderly American with multiple medical problems, on multiple medications, including insulin for example, and no way to communicate my medical history effectively, there could have been some big problems.
As a result of this personal story and his overall feelings as an ER doctor, he recommends that everyone with a smartphone pre-load their health history, medications, medication allergies, etc., into their phones prior to their upcoming travel abroad.
Furthermore, he suggests it would be ideal to have this data translated into the local language. There are apps for this so that the task is not too daunting. He also recommends finding an App with the capability to input your current medical problem and symptoms and have it translated to the local language. 1st Minute App’s upcoming capability is a great example of this. Then you can show your translated ‘intake form’ to the local nurse, physician, or pharmacist. This will get you up and running as quickly as possible to obtain the right care.
We get spoiled when it comes to medical care in the United States where communication and comprehension in the English language is ubiquitous. Even for foreign tourists and immigrants, the language barrier at hospitals can be solved. Almost every healthcare facility in the US has access to translators 24/7 for any number of common and exotic languages. However, with increasing demand for services, immediate interpreter access is not always the norm as evidenced by this recent story from a Level 1 trauma center.
A little planning before you go on your next trip could indeed save your life, and will at least give you the peace of mind that you’re prepared while you travel.
Read more from our medical advisor, Dr. Tyler DeLange in his recent blog: Avoiding Medical Emergencies During Travel – Tips from an ER Doctor.