An upset tummy is one thing, but getting so sick that you have to go to hospital or be flown out while on holiday abroad is no joke.
Before you embark on a long tour abroad, you probably prepare your vehicle thoroughly to prevent any possible problems that might occur on or off-road. You have it serviced and pack a set of recovery equipment, a toolkit and spare parts. But what happens if some sort of trouble or illness befalls a member of the tour? Did you make the necessary preparations or pack the right things? And what will your medical aid say if an air ambulance has to come fetch you? The chances of something serious like this happening might be fairly slim, but remember: Prevention is always better than cure.
Get your paperwork sorted
Firstly, find out how things stand with your medical aid, because there are numerous conditions and restrictions surrounding coverage when you’re outside the borders of your country of residence. The country’s largest medical aid provider, Discovery, covers you for an amount of between R5 million and R10 million, depending on your plan, while Bonitas, the second largest, will pay up to R5 million on all plans except the basic BonCap. Both companies also only cover you for 90 days. So if you’re planning on travelling all the way up to North Africa for six months, you’ll have to take out travel insurance with a company like Europ Assist or AIG (any travel agent will be able to help you with this). Also make sure you have your medical aid’s international emergency numbers handy. It probably differs from the ones you use when you’re in South Africa. Discovery and Bonitas both say they will cover the cost of an authorised emergency visit to a local hospital (if it falls within your plan’s limit, of course). If this is not necessary and you are able to travel, your medical aid will also pay through a service like ER24 so that you can be brought back to South Africa. Just double check the fine print: Discovery doesn’t cover, for example, search-and-rescue operations, so if you get lost somewhere in
Lesotho’s mountains and a rescue party has to come find you, you might have to cough up. Tip Make sure you have enough cash on you for medical emergencies. You’ll probably have to pay an excess that you might only be able to claim back home. Pack your (first-aid) bag Once you’re sure about the terms and conditions of your medical aid’s international coverage, it’s time to prepare for less serious ailments. Just don’t try to pack an entire pharmacy in an old shoebox. Ask the right questions. Where are you going and what do you plan on doing? For a malaria zone, for example, you’ll pack different medication than for icy Lesotho. Prioritise. Pack chronic medication first (and extra for emergencies). Think of the children. Make sure you take the right kind of medication for both adults and children. Pack enough. Take enough medication for your whole trip, plus a bit extra for emergencies. Label everything clearly. Always ask your pharmacist to label all medications, especially pills and syrup that have been removed from its original packaging. And remember… There’s also paperwork for medication. Things like antibiotics, chronic medication, certain pain pills, and antihistamine have to be prescribed by a doctor. If you’re crossing a border, you need a note from your doctor confirming that you’re taking prescription medicine. Now you can start packing. A first-aid kit should contain the following: >
Have an emergency plan ready
Before you hit the road, make sure you have an emergency plan. In its most basic format, an emergency plan is basically a piece of paper with all the emergency numbers at home and abroad that you think you might need. You can of course expand it to suit your needs. Jacques says your plan should have the following kind of information: the numbers of private and provincial emergency services, your doctor’s after-hours contact details, and any numbers that are relevant to your journey, for example the Mountain Club of South Africa, Wilderness Search and Rescue, or the NSRI. Acquaint yourself with the nearest hospital – where it is and what types of services are available there. “You don’t want to drive 100 km and find that the ‘hospital’ is actually a tiny TB clinic!” says Jacques. Deeper into Africa, medical help isn’t always readily available and the conditions in the hospitals are often appalling, so find out ahead of time where you can find reliable medical help and include this information in your emergency plan. You should formulate your plan according to the specific medical problems you might encounter on your route – think about things like dehydration due to extreme temperatures, high accident zones, and malaria. Also ensure someone at home has a copy of your emergency plan. Lastly, says Jacques, it’s important to have the medical information of everyone in your group, like medical conditions and how to handle it, medical aid numbers, blood types and personal information, and next of kin’s contact details.
Prepare yourself for the worst
Bertus Prinsloo, a consulting operational officer for the medical evacuation service Aerocare, says misconceptions surrounding international medical aid cover and how fast they act are the biggest problems he’s seen amongst travellers. Bertus has his own medical emergency company, Outdoor Medical, and regularly offers paramedic coverage for Land Rover and Ford’s outdoor activities. And he’s travelled deep into Africa with Kingsley Holgate and his team. “Don’t think you merely wave your card around while you’re lying somewhere in the bush and suddenly a chopper appears on the horizon,” says the Gautenger. “It takes hours to sort out all of the admin surrounding aeroplanes and helicopters. You need a flight plan, authorisation to fly across the border, and there’s Customs.” He says it’s a problem with the medical aids if you get injured or sick outside of office hours or far from a hospital. “On a recent tour a British woman broke her ankle in Mozambique. Her medical insurance at home simply refused to activate her coverage before they could speak to local medical personnel. When we could finally drag her to a local clinic, the people there only spoke Portuguese.” Bertus says it’s important to always notify your medical aid in writing before leaving the country. “If you’re going to Namibia to do some 4x4 driving and you roll your vehicle somewhere in Etosha, you don’t want to then explain why you’re phoning from abroad.” He reckons it’s always a good plan to take out additional coverage, but warns that medical aids and travel insurance work best for “ideal scenarios” – those where your condition isn’t too serious and there’s time to obtain the necessary authorisation when you need to be admitted to a hospital somewhere. “On one of our tours a member of the group became seriously ill with malaria. We weren’t, however, in a malaria zone and nobody expected it. It turned out that he travelled in a malaria zone a week earlier. In normal circumstances he would have been able to receive treatment in a local hospital but because we weren’t in a malaria zone, none of the medical centres were equipped for it. We eventually had to fly him out of the country for treatment.
Money in the (emergency)bank
Bertus’s advice to travellers is to have an emergency fund for an air ambulance service and so avoid the rigmarole of medical evacuation. “We often manage the medical services coverage for motorbike tours. I then always suggest that the members of the group all give us an amount of money. If you’re a convoy of 10 to 15 people and everyone gives R10 000, we have a decent amount to get an aeroplane in the sky if need be. Then we don’t have to wait for the people’s medical insurers to give permission – we can almost immediately be in the sky and later, when the emergency situation is over, we can sort out the finances. Contact Bertus Prinsloo and Aerocare at 082 555 8222 or 082 880 8539