What to Do If You Need to Have Surgery While Traveling

Most surgery is scheduled in advance, with plenty of time to notify your insurance company, choose a surgeon, schedule time away from work and generally prepare for the procedure and the recovery following. If you are traveling and need surgery, the chances are that your procedure was not planned in advance, and may, in fact, be an emergency.

If you are facing unexpected surgery while traveling in your own country or abroad, there are many things that you will need to do in order to have the best possible experience, both for your health and for your wallet. It can be a scary thing to have medical problems when you are out of your comfort zone, but your surgery can still be a successful one away from home.

A surgeon putting on gloves
 Michael H / Getty Images 

Choosing a Facility

For your health, choosing a facility may not or may not be an option. You may be taken to the closest facility that is capable of treating your particular illness. If your condition is not urgent, you may be given the opportunity to select a facility.

It would be a wise decision to pursue care at a facility that has a strong reputation in the type of care you need, as well as seeking out a facility that maximizes your insurance coverage.

It may not be possible to find a hospital that is accomplished by performing the procedure that you need that also is “in-network” for your insurance. In these circumstances, your health should be the priority, especially in situations where time is short, not your maximum out of pocket expense.

Insurance Concerns

Insurance coverage can vary widely from company to company and even between policies. Your individual coverage will determine what kind of financial support you can expect from your health insurance, and whether or not your procedure will be covered to the full extent of your policy. For example, a surgery that happens in another state may fall under “out of network” coverage, which is covered at a lower rate than “in-network.”

Health Insurance While out of the Country

Some health insurance will not pay for any healthcare expenses that are incurred out of the country. Other companies may pay some percentage of the expenses. For example, Medicare will pay for emergency dialysis while traveling out of the country, but most other costs are not covered.

Most insurance companies will not pay for medical repatriation, which is the term for being returned to your home country for healthcare. Repatriation is typically done with a private jet used as a medical ambulance that is outfitted for medical care and is shockingly expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars a day.

Individuals traveling outside of their home country are often encouraged to purchase travel insurance, which varies in coverage based on the policy purchased. Some extensively cover emergency medical treatment and repatriation, while others cover a portion of medical care.

These policies are typically inexpensive relative to the total cost of a trip outside the country and can literally be a lifesaver when high-quality healthcare is needed but unable to be obtained in the patient’s current location. Here is a list of things you, or your family, should keep in mind when an unexpected and unplanned surgery becomes reality while traveling:

  • Contact the local U.S. Embassy (or your embassy if you are not from the United States) and ask for their assistance in selecting a local facility if you are having difficulty finding an appropriate hospital.
  • Call your health insurance company and inform them about what is happening. Some companies limit coverage if they are not promptly notified.
  • Call your place of work and inform them of the change in your plans and a possible change in your return to work date.
  • Obtain medical records from home as quickly as possible if they contain information that will be helpful for the treatment for your current illness. 
  • If you have travel insurance, make the insurance company aware of your need to use your coverage.
  • The facility you use may offer translators to assist in your care. If the hospital typically provides care in a language that you are not fluent in, be sure to inquire about translation services.
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By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.