Health insurance: don’t pay with your life

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Should you require emergency medical assistance, would you stay where you are or fly back home?

When living abroad, health risks should never be overlooked. Underdeveloped countries might pose threats of food- or water-borne illnesses. Tropical areas might mean there is a risk of being infected with malaria, dengue or yellow fever. Living in a country with a high concentration of air pollutants is also hazardous to your lungs.

As an expat, it’s important to have an answer to the following question: should I require emergency medical assistance, would I stay where I am or fly back home? The decision varies on where I am living or travelling at the moment of illness or injury and how bad it is. I currently live in Spain, but would be on a plane back home to Mexico in a heartbeat.

Although this may seem crazy to those who would consider Spanish healthcare systems better quality than those of my home country, I do in fact hold private health insurance. This grants me access to the best medical care in Mexico (and the world), as well as the ease and comfort of understanding the system where I am being treated. Additionally, Mexican private health system standards are equal – and sometimes higher – than those in the USA or Canada, making it a popular medical tourism destination (same quality, half the price!) The same is true for many other countries such as Singapore, Thailand, and even Morocco.

Things to think about

Whether you stay or go back home is an individual decision; it will depend on where you live and where you are from, as well as your international health insurance coverage. Will they repatriate you, pay for prescribed medication, cover hospital stays, x-rays or surgeries? Should you decide to stay put, does your insurance cover the flight and accommodation of a family member to be by your side? You should know that this is a possibility and you should consider adding it to your insurance policy if it gives you extra security.

Mapping healthcare

Recently, International SOS published a map ranking the world’s healthcare systems from low-risk to extreme-risk. Parts of Europe, the USA and Canada are considered low-risk, which means having cardiac arrest equals to a greater chance of survival than say, if you have cardiac arrest in China. Interestingly, China has all the equipment required of a low-risk country, but without the properly trained staff.

Amongst the rankings, however, there is a gray area. Shaded in brown are large developing countries, such as Brazil, that are hard to rank due to the huge discrepancy between urban and rural areas, as well as private and public systems. This means that you’ll be fine should you require emergency attention in Sao Paolo or Rio de Janeiro, but doctors might recommend evacuation if something happens to you while in Manaus.

This highlights the importance of having the emergency evacuation box ticked off your insurance policy requirements if you are flying to any of the high- or extreme-risk countries. This even applies to the countries shaded brown because you never know how good the health care will be in reality.

Insure yourself

According to the map, less than one third of the world has prime healthcare when it comes to treating emergencies (this means efficacy, cost per capita, waiting time, equipment, and properly trained medical staff). While medium-risk countries come in a significant number, as well, it is still important to be insured against any unforeseen events (injuries, illnesses, natural disasters).

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you’re in a first-world country, you will receive the best healthcare, either. Private and public healthcare systems vary greatly even within countries with great health systems. Opting for private health insurance is your ticket to high quality healthcare.

Make sure you look through your insurance policy to check that you are covered for everything you think living in a certain country might require. If you want to avoid problems, get yourself and your family covered for everything. Financially, the price you are paying for your insurance is lower than having to cover emergency costs without it.

[Image: Jason Bain, International SOS]