Sick Overseas

Tips for Going to the Doctor When You Don’t Know the Language

At first, it’s just a sniffle.

A couple days later, your students pat you on the back as they leave the classroom and whisper, “get some rest, teacher.”

By the end of the week, you’re tired, worn out from coughing, and wondering: What should you do now that you’re ill and overseas?

You should try to get better, of course. And the quickest way to that is usually by seeking help from a medical professional.

My personal experience with doctors overseas is that I have had far better health care almost everywhere than I ever had in the States. This, of course, will depend on whether you are in an urban or rural area and on the type of problem you’re experiencing.

Do Some Research Before You Get Sick

Ideally, before you get sick, you should do some research about medical facilities soon after you move to town.

The first thing to know is if you should be going to a hospital or to a clinic. In some countries, especially in Asia, it’s unusual to make an appointment with a doctor outside of the hospital building. In Europe, by contrast, your doctor may have an office in a residential apartment building. In the United States, we usually go to see a general practitioner first, and then get a referral to a specialist. But in other countries, you may be told to go directly to a specialist. This basic information—as well as the location of the hospital or clinic closest to your apartment—is something you should find out before you get ill, so that you’re prepared when you need to go.

Many teachers worry about their first trip to the doctor abroad because they’re nervous about communicating with the clinic or hospital staff. However, know that most doctors you visit around the world have some English skills. In any culture, doctors are highly educated people, and it’s a fair bet that they’ve devoted several years to acquiring English as well as clinical know-how. In fact, they’ve probably had to learn English just to complete their studies—a lot of international medical research is published in English originally. When I lived in Taiwan, I learned that doctors there had to submit their research in English, and I had a profitable side-job proofreading some of those studies for them.

So, talking to the doctor will probably not be as difficult as you are worried about. However, hospital registration paperwork and filling prescriptions of medicine might require some local lingo. It is a good idea to ask your employer if they have a helper that can go with you on your first visit to the hospital just to help with these things. If you do go solo, here are some things you might need to take with you to the hospital:

•  Your passport

•  Cash (we’ll discuss payment in a moment)

•  A residence card/local ID (if you have one)

•  Your local address and phone number

•  The address and phone number of your employer

•  Boxes/photos of any medicines you’ve taken for this illness in the past. While brand names are different from country to country, doctors may be able to help you find a match.

•  A book (or something to while away time in the waiting room)

•  A dictionary, in case there are some communication problems

If your problem is not an emergency, you might spend 15 or 20 minutes on the Internet making a list of translations for the symptoms you’re experiencing. You can then show this list to the nurse or receptionist and they’ll be able to help you figure out what doctor to go to. Usually, you won’t need the list because the doctor or nurse will understand you in English or through pantomime anyway, but it might help you feel less anxious to go in prepared.

How to Pay

Now, let’s talk about payment. In most instances abroad, I’ve paid cash for doctors’ visits and medication. Even if you’re insured, the transaction may be more smooth if you pay upfront and get receipts and let the insurer pay you back. However, this is also something you ideally should know before you move abroad. Talk to your insurer about it, make notes, and keep the information available for easy reference when you need it. If your employer is paying for your health insurance abroad, don’t assume that it will function the same way as employer-provided health insurance would in your home country. As part of your hiring or orientation process, get acquainted with what the insurance covers and which hospitals or doctors you can see under it.

Whether your health issue is small or large, don’t let a fear of going to the doctor abroad stop you from pursuing treatment. View it as part of the experience of living abroad, and you may be surprised what a great story your hospital visits will make later when you talk to friends or family back home.

Ted’s Tips #1:  In some countries, the doctor-patient consultation is not as private as it might be in your home country. Be ready for assistants, trainee doctors and sometimes other patients to be in the room with you while you explain your problems. If no one else is embarrassed by this, you shouldn’t be either.

Ted’s Tips #2:  In some countries, your doctor may give you the option of being treated by traditional medicine. If you know you would not like to try this, it’s okay to say no and ask for Western medication.

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Author: Ted

Semi-retired EFL teacher/teacher-trainer working and living abroad since 1989 in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.