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Traveling can expose individuals to various medical emergencies. Different people face different challenges depending on their destination, mode of transportation, and individual health status. At Global Executive Medicine (GEM), our team provides expert advice on how to mitigate potential emergencies while traveling. 

One key element of our work is developing personalized medical contingency plans for clients. Below, I explain how to create your own medical contingency plan to ensure your family’s safety during your next vacation.

Parrot in Ecuador. Photo by Ryk Porras, Unsplash
Parrot in Ecuador. Photo by Ryk Porras, Unsplash

What Is a Medical Contingency Plan?

A medical contingency plan includes many parts. First and foremost, it identifies potential risks and hazards. Some common emergencies include:

  • Accidents and injuries. These can include motor vehicle accidents, slips and falls, burns, fractures and other injuries that may occur during recreational activities.
  • Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular. Long flights or travel to high altitudes can increase the risk of heart attacks, blood clots, and strokes.
  • Mental Health. Traveling can be stressful, and individuals may experience anxiety, panic attacks, depression, or suicidal thoughts.
  • Infectious Disease. Traveling to certain destinations can increase the risk of exposure to infectious diseases, such as hepatitis, malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus, and COVID-19.
  • Gastrointestinal. Changes in diet and exposure to new bacteria and viruses can cause illnesses such as traveler’s diarrhea, food poisoning, and norovirus.
  • Respiratory. Exposure to poor air quality, allergens, or infectious diseases increases the risk of respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia, influenza, RSV, and COVID-19.
  • Environmental. Extreme temperatures, natural disasters, and other environmental hazards can cause medical emergencies, such as heat stroke, hypothermia, or traumatic injuries.

Medical contingency plans define appropriate responses for these situations. To be effective, these strategies should consider the traveler’s medical history, activity itinerary, and local medical infrastructure.

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Research Medical Facilities

Choosing which medical facilities to visit if needed is one of the most important parts of medical contingency planning. I recommend doing research before your departure, assessing the quality of care, compliance, and accreditation of each facility. Are they capable of meeting your needs in an emergency?

Geographic location and ground travel time should also be considered. How far away would they be from you and your family at any given time? Would you be able to get to the facility in a timely fashion? Conducting a simple Google Directions search between your likely locations and the medical clinic can help you decide. Above all, your plan should be practical.

Times Square, New York, United States. Photo by Luca Bravo, Unsplash
Times Square, New York, United States. Photo by Luca Bravo, Unsplash

Pack a First-Aid Kit

While packing, don’t forget your and your family members’ prescription medications, as well as any supplements. Make sure to pack enough for the entire trip, plus at least five additional days’ worth in case of travel delays. 

But that’s not all. Keep in mind the possible challenges that await you at your destination, and include over-the-counter solutions. For instance, it’s particularly important to pack medications that address gastrointestinal symptoms like Imodium, Tums, and PeptoBismol. Other good medications to take include nasal decongestants, cough suppressants, pain relievers, antihistamines, and throat lozenges.

A first-aid manual and complete first-aid kit are also indispensable. Include adhesive bandages of various sizes, elastic bandages, triangular bandages, sterile gauze pads, tourniquet and pressure dressing, adhesive tape, disposable gloves, antiseptic wipes, a thermometer, a cold pack, safety pins, scissors, and tweezers. With basic items like these, you will be prepared to treat various minor ailments or injuries quickly and efficiently on your own. A resealable bag is also a good idea, as it gives you a safe place to store soiled items.

Other Things to Pack

If you wear eyeglasses, pack an additional pair. If you wear contact lenses, you should also pack eyeglasses, since you are at risk for infections and corneal abrasions.

Another thing most travelers neglect to pack is a copy of their relevant medical histories. Yet this information proves invaluable during an emergency, since it will expedite your care. Keep in mind, as well, that you may not recall important medical information (such as your allergies) when you are under stress or in altered mental status from an injury. 

Your medical history should include a list of current medications, allergies (food and drugs), and medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and recent illnesses, especially more serious conditions like COVID-19 or pneumonia. Finally, make sure to list emergency contact numbers, including for your doctor, insurance company, and family members.

Simply type up this document yourself and print it out. I recommend keeping it in a waterproof container and having it with you at all times. Share a copy with a trusted friend or family member.

Woman in a hotel room.
Woman in a hotel room. Photo by Toa Heftiba, Unsplash

Stay on Top of the Latest Developments

No traveler means to get caught up in historic events like riots or coups. But just because you’re visiting a destination doesn’t mean nothing dramatic will happen.

To prepare, go to the US Department of State website and familiarize yourself with any existing travel advisories. Make sure to look up the countries you will be visiting. If they are listed as Level 1, then you should exercise normal precautions, but if they are Level 2, then that destination is experiencing more serious issues. Level 3 means you should reconsider going to that location. Don’t go to places that are Level 4. 

In addition, enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free service that allows you to register your upcoming trips with the relevant US embassies or consulates. Once signed up, you will receive safety and security information regarding your destination, including demonstrations, severe weather, and pandemic breakouts like COVID-19.

In addition, the information you provide enables the embassy to respond faster in assisting you in emergencies, from losing your passport to hospitalization. The online system also allows you to list an emergency contact person. 

Experts Can Help

Does this sound like a lot of work? That’s because it is. But in the event of an emergency, you won’t have time to do anything but act. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead of time.

The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. Consultants who specialize in medical contingency planning, like GEM’s, can do the work for you. That way, when you board your outbound flight, you can enjoy your vacation with peace of mind.

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Author Bio: Abe Medina, founder of Global Executive Medicine (GEM), served 22 years in the U.S. Army, was a senior Tactical Medical Officer in the White House, and advised as the Director of Medical Operations for an executive protection team of a prominent international financier and philanthropist. His extensive practical experience allows him to develop innovative solutions tailored for clients with travel, time, privacy, and security demands.

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