A traveler's guide to hospitals abroad

The Ospedale Civico hospital in Venice, Italy
The main civic hospital in Venice occupies a 15th century monastery and is quite beautiful, inside and out. They also let me keep the X-rays of my head which, along with the prescription pills to help fight of my serious case of sinusitis, came absolutely free of charge. Oh, and I was in and out in under an hour having only filled out one form with my name and address. I love socialized medicine.

Will insurance cover the costs?
What's it like to visit a foreign hospital?
If, heaven forbid, you need to visit the hospital, just find the nearest one and march right in.

Doctors are an educated bunch, and most hospitals sport at least a handful who speak English.

Much of Europe and other parts of the world (except the United States) practices semi- or fully socialized medicine, so you may very well be taken care of swiftly, given a dose of medicine and a prescription for more, and sent on your way with a smile. At most, they'll bill you on the spot for $35 to $50. You can trust me; I've done this a lot.

For added piece of mind, many big cities have private hospitals with native English speakers; any local American consulate can provide a list.

If you do end up paying for health care, especially if you have to be admitted for any reason, most health insurance plans and HMOs will cover, at least to some extent, out-of-country hospital visits and procedures. Most make you pay the bills up front at the time of care, however, and you'll get a refund after you've returned and filed all the paperwork. Assuming your insurer will cover you at all. The insurance page has details, bu in brief:

Will my insurance cover hospital costs in a foreign country?

Should you have a more serious problem requiring serious hospital care, the hosptial bills can start to add up (though everythgin is still usually far, far, far less costly than they would be at an American hosptial).

For big, billable hospital stays, most care centers will bill you up front then leave it up to you and your insurance carrier to settle the costs.

In these cases, a personal health insurance plan may help—but check with your provider, as some will cover you when you're on the road, and some will not, or at least will not cover the major expenses.

And, no matter what, a hospital in a foreign country will deifnitely be considered "out of network" and subject to the highest fees and rates. (Those legal thieveries known as HMOs are the most heinous culprits in this department—though Medicare/Medicaid are also largely useless outside of the U.S.)

Sometimes, a seperate travel health insurance plan can come in handy, and maybe even coverage to get you flown back to the States for further care (called "medical evacuation insurance").

What's it like to visit a hospital in Europe?

Picture this. You're sick, or you hurt, in a foreign country and it's the middle of the night. Or it's a Sunday. Whatever the case, the pharmacies are largely closed, so you stumble into the front entrance to the nearest hospital. They take one look at you and whisk you off to an exam room.

Within a few minutes, there's a doctor in there with you, prodding and taking temps and asking questions. After a few minutes, he gives you some medications to take on the spot whilst he's busily scribbling out a prescription fro whatever it is you need to get better.

He gives you a few kind words of advice in broken English, smiles, and heads back out of the room while the nurse helps you to your feet, tells you how to find the nearest pharmacy that’s open 24 hours or on a Sunday, and she smiles, too. You leave the hospital, hail a taxi, and are on your way to the pharmacy and on the road to wellness.

At no point did someone ask to see your insurance card to prove you were worthy of receiving medical care. At most, you filled out a single form with your name and the word "tourist" under the "address" field.

Call me crazy, but socialized medicine is the greatest invention since sliced bread—heck, since the wheel—and we Americans are blind fools not to realize it. We have let ourselves become pathetically beholden to the thrall of big business and the daily incremental value of our 401K plans to see otherwise.

U.K. hosptials say "no" to foreigners

Note that this lovely social medicine regime is startig to change. On New Year's Eve, 2003, Britain announced it would be charging non-residents up front for hospital care.

This is an effort to crack down on "medical tourism" freeloaders—folks who travel to the UK just to get their major medical problems taken care of on the house, then return home.

These new measures had most British doctors crying "foul!" since refusing treatment of any patient—British citizen, U.K. resident, or otherwise—flies in the face of the Hippocratic Oath.

Unfortunately, the new rules may also make it harder for a tourist who happens to fall in on vacation to get treatment.

I've been to hospital in Europe at least five or six times, on my own behalf or accompanying friends of mine, and it has always gone down the way I described above. No fuss, no muss. Just a strict adherence to the Hippocratic Oath and a fast track to getting better.

Since much of Europe enjoys at least partially socialized medicine, you can generally just pop into a hospital like that and get taken care of speedily, professionally, and at little to no charge.

(That hospital in Venice that charged me nothing for the exams and battery of tests they ran even let me keep the cool head x-rays that proved all I had was a raging case of sinunitis. And they gave me free antibiotics, too.)

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in August 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.