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Executive Travel : Under the Weather Overseas? Here’s an Rx

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CAROL SMITH <i> is a free-lance writer based in Pasadena</i>

Getting sick on the road, especially overseas, can be a disaster for business travelers.

It’s not just the cost or inconvenience of missed meetings that can turn a sprained ankle or a sore throat into a crisis. In many parts of the world, antibiotics, clean needles, good blood supplies and trained specialists are not readily available. Ailments as common as strep throat can lead to death if left untreated.

Even so, eight out of 10 travelers don’t think through in advance how they would handle a medical emergency on their trips, said Dr. Claude Cadoux, a travel medicine specialist and medical director for Medex Assistance Corp. in Frederick, Md., which provides international medical assistance and evacuation services for U.S. business travelers abroad.

U.S. companies are sending employees on business trips to an increasing number of locations, many of them in remote areas, said Jack Shettle, president of Medex. Business-travel-related cases are increasing at a rate of about 35% a year, he said.

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The most common problems encountered by business travelers are ailments such as sprains, strains and fractures, Cadoux said. The others, in order of frequency: ear, nose and throat disorders; infectious diseases, such as the flu and malaria; cardiovascular disorders, with heart attacks and chest pains causing the most hospitalizations abroad, and gastrointestinal disorders, including ulcers and appendicitis.

But those aren’t the only problems. John Fazio, corporate travel manager for Mitsubishi Electronics in Cypress, recalls one employee who delivered more than her presentation while on a business trip--she delivered her baby a month earlier than expected. Fazio said the company’s 24-hour travel management system helped her reach a city where she had relatives.

It’s fairly common for traveling employees who get sick to interrupt their trips by staying over in a connecting city, Fazio said. In that case, the company arranges for a hotel and a doctor or whatever attention is necessary.

There are a number of steps business travelers can take before a trip to prepare for illness that can prevent a routine or mild medical problem from turning into an emergency. Here are some suggestions from Cadoux; David Stempler, director of the Washington-based International Airline Passengers Assn., and the International Assn. for Medical Assistance to Travelers. The latter group is a nonprofit organization based in Lewiston, N.Y., that provides disease information and an international list of English-speaking doctors.

Before You Go: Make a list of current medications, including dosages, in case you need to relay the information to a foreign doctor or refill a prescription overseas. Even better, carry enough medication to cover you for the length of time you will be away.

Check your health insurance. Many health plans do not cover you once you leave the United States, Stempler said. If you are not covered, consider purchasing a travel insurance plan. These plans are offered by a number of companies, including Travel Guard International, International SOS Assistance, US Assist, Travel Assistance International, Medex, Health Care Abroad, HealthCare Global, Carefree Travel Insurance, Access America, American Express Travel Protection Plan, TravelAssure and Travel Insured International.

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Before purchasing travel insurance, make sure you understand coverage limits and whether the policy covers the cost of evacuation to the closest medical facility. Evacuations can cost $6,000 to $30,000 or more, Shettle said.

Also, check with your employer to see whether you are covered under any additional trip insurance plans. Make sure you understand any exclusions or waiting periods that apply to pre-existing conditions.

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If you have a chronic medical problem, get checked before you go so you know you can safely travel and are sure the problem is under control.

Carry a brief clinical history with you, especially if you have pre-existing conditions. The International Assn. for Medical Assistance to Travelers gives members a card to fill out detailing their medical condition; call (716) 754-4883. Medex soon plans to offer a plastic card that can contain both a traveler’s medical history and a copy of his or her EKG. Or ask your doctor to write down information that someone treating you in a foreign country would need to know, especially any food or drug allergies you have.

Carry an information card with phone numbers of a relative in the United States, as well as your doctor’s phone number.

Call the U.S. Consular Affairs Office ((202) 647-5225) and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta ((404) 639-3311) for recorded health advisory information on countries you will be traveling to.

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Consider consulting a travel medicine specialist (these can be found through most major hospitals) to see whether there are additional vaccines that, though not required, might be advisable for traveling in some parts of the world.

What to Pack: Make sure you pack half your medications in your carry-on baggage and half in your checked bags so that if either gets lost or stolen you still have medication.

If you are traveling to a remote location, consider carrying an emergency first-aid kit. In addition to standard items such as bandaging materials and disinfectants, the kit should contain needles, syringes and non-reusable adapters for hooking up IV fluids.

“Many times the local doctors are quite competent, but they won’t have supplies to work with,” Cadoux said.

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