medical treatments in foreign countries

Medical Treatment In Foreign Countries Doesn’t Have To Be Scary

You’re finally taking your much-anticipated vacation in an exciting new country. But instead of exploring the place, you find yourself wasting precious time in a doctor’s office. This usually means you’re sick—the instant enjoyment killer of anyone’s travels—and that one of the worse case scenarios has played out. But medical treatment is possible, and could it be that bad?

However, long-term travel changes that notion…

Although we’ve had those medical emergencies over the years and learned a lot of great health tips from those experiences, we now have to think about health maintenance too. We need regular physicals, dental cleanings, and new eye prescriptions  (for Troy to read restaurant menus; fortunately, I had laser eye surgery before I left).

Although we no longer have regular insurance that would cover dental or eyecare, we are still covered under provincial health care for another year. Many other travelers we’ve met don’t have this luxury and have to rely on travel insurance, which only takes care of emergencies not regular visits.

Embracing medical treatment in a foreign country—even when you can’t speak the language

We received excellent care in Indonesia and Panama this year—better than we expected in both quality and cost. We also made a hospital visit in Vietnam years ago.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was to accurately explain our medical problem using the right terminology. We learned a few ways to help with the language barrier:

 1) Use Google Translate or a language book so you can pronounce your symptoms. Words go a long way and you can still communicate without sentences. Write the words down as well and share them with the doctor. It makes a big difference.

2) Find someone in the clinic who knows a little English to facilitate the conversation.

3) Body language helps indicate where the pain is located. I demonstrated how I felt dizzy from vertigo only to discover that it’s the same word in Spanish. In a Vietnamese hospital years ago, it took me several minutes to realize that when the nurse was saying “tites”, she was asking me about a Tetanus shot. Patience was the virtue here!

 4) It seems common for many doctors to be schooled in western countries and then return home to practice. We met many travelers who had this experience too. This is a bonus.

Sure, broken communication can be frustrating, but your health is worth it and it makes for one hell of a good travel story!

Cost and quality of our medical treatment 

Dental: We booked a dental cleaning in Panama City in a clean modern office that included a full cleaning with fluoride and an overall check-up from the dentist. It cost $50U.S. The dental forms were entirely in Spanish, but could be translated into English by simply photographing them through the Google Translate app on our phones. The dentist had also been schooled in the United States, which made it easier to get answers to our questions.

Medical treatment

Toyo Medika Clinic in Bali, Indonesia

Medical: We visited clinics in Indonesia and Panama. In some countries, there are public and private healthcare facilities. The best way to know your options is to ask locals or expats, or conduct your own online research.

medical treatment

In the waiting room waiting for Dorene

We received excellent care in both countries, visiting clinics similar to what you’d find in the western world. We paid $20US for a doctor’s visit in Panama and $50US in Indonesia. We also found English-speaking doctors in every case—we were fortunate. The fact that many English medical terms are actually very similar in Spanish was an added plus, making communication far easier than we anticipated.

Lab tests: We had routine tests done in Panama with a free follow-up from the doctor, who took the time to thoroughly explain our test results. The lab was a state of the art facility that rivaled any lab in Canada or the U.S. and our results were emailed to us within three hours of our visit. It was a private lab and the tests cost $100US. We don’t normally pay for this kind of service (if you have healthcare), but we can’t ignore the need to get an annual check-up, we’re getting up there, the systems are wearing down!

Medical treatment

Troy getting an eye exam in Panama City

Eye exam and new lenses: Troy visited an eye care office in Panama and received a full eye exam, free of charge, to update his prescriptions. With basic Spanish, he was able to explain his needs and get his questions answered. Prescription numbers are universal and the cost of lenses was about the same as home, but perhaps if he shopped around, he could have gotten a better price. His lenses cost $90U.S.

Drug prescriptions: Filling prescriptions can be tricky. We are currently having difficulty finding a common product we used back home, as there may be differences between drug brands, while some generic named brands may not be used at all. When I had an infection in Vietnam, I managed to understand the dosage, but not what the medication was treating. Once I researched online and discovered what they were treating. Doing that research, I felt more comfortable.

With a little planning before your next medical treatment and thorough recommendations from locals, you may be pleasantly surprised with your experience.

Remember, if you don’t have your health, how can you live your most fulfilling life?

Tip: If you plan to travel longer than six months, investigate whether you can get a sabbatical from your medical insurance. In Canada, we applied for a sabbatical, which allows us to be away for two years and still keep our health insurance for when we visit home. It’s worth checking out the options in your own home country.

What positive experiences have you experienced when it comes to medical treatment or dental treatment in foreign countries? Was it better than what you anticipated? We would love to hear from you.





About the Author Dorene

Dorene is a marketing consultant and freelance writer. She quit her 20-year career in marketing to redesign her career and lifestyle on her own terms by living location independent. Now with her husband Troy, she helps people who want to redefine their midlife and make conscious changes at TravelLifeX. She also trains & coaches travel and hospitality clients to improve their marketing at

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