Almost half of all Australians who travel overseas will report a health problem. For the overwhelming majority it's as mild as sunburn, jetlag or an upset stomach, but what do you do if it's something more serious?
If you're on a cruise
A ship of any size will have a doctor, but if it's a small vessel that might be a crew member with some medical qualifications. Even if it's something as simple as seasickness, see your ship's medico straight away, if a charge is involved your travel insurance might cover the cost of your treatment.
If you're on a tour
Tell your tour leader and discuss your symptoms. Tours often travel at a brisk pace and days can be long and demanding. If you're feeling crook, trying to keep up might make things worse. You might need time out to rest and recuperate and your tour leader should be able to organise that for you. If you're not feeling better after taking it easy for a couple of days it's time to call in the professionals. Ask your tour leader or hotel to organise a doctor.
If you're on an aircraft
Let the crew know. Motion sickness is pretty common and nothing to get too concerned about, although that nausea that comes with it is far from pleasant. Usually accompanied by dizziness. If you're prone to motion sickness a window seat helps. If it's something more than motion sickness such as a fever, the crew might try and move you to a more isolated area, and possibly notify the airport so you can be thoroughly checked on arrival.
If you're alone
Getting sick or injured when you're on your lonesome is more frightening, and potentially more serious. Travelling solo requires a greater degree of caution, and a more prompt call for medical intervention. Don't try and tough it out, and if you need to, postpone whatever plans you might have, rest and recuperate and order room service or meals delivered from outside until you're up to facing the world again.
When to call a doctor
Exactly when to call in a medical professional is not the same for everyone, but do it at the same time as you would at home. Doctors will often make house calls to hotels. If you're unsure what to do you might contact your regular medical professional back home, but only if you've cleared this in advance with him or her.
If you require hospitalisation
As soon as possible, contact your travel insurer, tell them where you are and what's happening. Your insurer should have a medical assistance team who will liase with the hospital, monitor your treatment and work out a care plan. Subject to your permission, your insurer can also discuss your condition and treatment with your family. Medical facilities and treatment will not be the same as they are at home and language might also be a problem but it's important that you remain calm and positive.
Can the Australian Government help?
If you have a medical emergency that requires hospitalisation and you need to find out where to go, call the nearest Australian diplomatic representative office and follow the telephone prompts. If you can't make contact with the nearest Australian Embassy, High Commission or Consulate, call the Consular Emergency Centre (CEC) in Canberra on +61 2 6261 3305. An Australian Government representative should be able to provide you with a number to call for medical treatment but there is a limit to what they can do. They cannot arrange for your treatment, pay for it or arrange for your medical evacuation if that's required. That's what travel insurance is for.
Australia has an Australia-Canada Consular Services Sharing Agreement which allows Australians to contact the Canadian consulate for advice and assistance in countries where Australia has no consular presence. Here again, the CEC can advise.
Reciprocal Health Care Agreements
Australia has reciprocal health care agreements with the 10 European countries listed below and New Zealand that provide medical care to Australians. The conditions vary slightly from one country to the next but the care must be urgent and medically necessary. A stomach complaint won't cut it. In some countries medicines might be provided free of charge but this is not a given. A co-payment from the patient might be required.
- New Zealand
- Republic of Ireland
- United Kingdom
Some useful contacts
The International Society of Travel Medicine (ISTM) has a directory of their global clinics around the world. Located in more than 90 countries, the ISTM clinics provide specialised counselling services, medicines and treatments medicines to help protect international travellers.
The website of the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers lists doctors and clinics for countries around the world. It also has a health-risk profile for each country and lists required and recommended vaccinations. You need to be a member to access the information but membership is free, valid for one year and renewable with a donation.
World Hospital Search can help you find a hospital in most countries around the globe.
Know before you go
The Smartraveller website has a health section with the risks present for each country. It takes about two minutes to read. Even if you're travelling to countries with advanced medical facilities in Western Europe or North America, this is required pre-trip reading for every prudent traveller.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has an excellent travel health website with a medical profile for every country in the world. In forensic detail it tells you the risk you might face when you travel to Armenia or Rurutu.
CDC recommended first-aid kit
- Over-the-counter medicines
- Diarrhea medicine (Imodium)
- Motion sickness medicine
- Cough drops, cough suppressant, or expectorant
- Pain and fever medicine (acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen)
- Mild laxative
- Mild sedative or sleep aid
- Supplies to prevent illness or injury
- Hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol) or antibacterial hand wipes
- Water purification tablets
- Insect repellent (with an active ingredient like DEET or picaridin)
- Sunscreen (with UVA and UVB protection, SPF 15 or higher)
- Sunglasses and hat
- First-aid kit
- 1 per cent hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial or antifungal ointments
- Digital thermometer
- Oral rehydration salts
- Antiseptic wound cleaner
- Aloe gel for sunburns
- Insect bite anti-itch gel or cream
- Disposable gloves
- Cotton swabs (Q-Tips)
- Eye drops