Medically Complex & Living Abroad

When most people consider moving to a new country they envision fresh new surroundings, faces and experiences. We do our due diligence to find out where we can get our favorite cereal and the best way to ship a three-month supply of natural hair products. We are hopeful that everything will be positive and relatively problem-free, learning to make substitutes and sacrifices as needed. But when you are medically complex there are many things you must explore that many people would not even consider.

As a preemie, born at just twenty-four weeks, I am no stranger to medicine. I’ve had over forty surgeries and counting and take a number of prescription medications. Despite being in the best health of my life, I rarely travel short distances without a veritable pharmacy in my bag. I understand that circumstances could change at a moment’s notice and that my existence is unpredictable.

I have wanted to live in Japan since I saw a documentary about Japanese school children in the fifth grade. While I’ve not made this dream come true yet, I had the privilege of living in Barbados in 2015. Although I researched local hospitals and received some guidance from my primary care physician in the States, island life was a wake-up call for my health.

There are many things I wish I had known before my move. To help others considering relocation, I am passing along this knowledge in hopes that your move abroad can be a smoother one. If you are medically complex and considering moving abroad, be sure to consider the following key factors.

Be Honest With Yourself About Your Health

Health is dynamic and many factors can impact it. Something that kind of bothers you in your country of origin, like occasional knee pain, that you’d written off as ‘no big deal’ may become a major issue if you move to a place where you’re going to be walking more than driving, possibly on unpaved roads. You don’t have to let your knee pain keep you from moving forward, but come prepared with a knee wrap or your over-the-counter pain reliever just in case it really starts to bother you.

If you’ve struggled with depression or anxiety in the past and think, I’m moving to get away from all of my triggers, understand that the cause of your problems may be physiological (like a chemical imbalance) or you may experience new triggers like homesickness. Acknowledging that mental health is just as important as your physical health will help you to reach out for support if and when you need it.

Request Medical Records

Medical records should be the first thing you request from your doctor when you find out you are moving abroad. This is important because not every medical practice uses electronic records. Since not every country has the same privacy laws (i.e. HIPPA), you may encounter difficulties getting your original doctor to transfer your records without proper paperwork. Handling all of this beforehand will make the entire process much easier.

Make a List of What You Need

Preparing the following list of key resources will help you to research and attain any assistance you may need:

Health insurance: Health insurance can be tricky for newcomers. Some countries have a universal healthcare system but citizenship may be required to access services using those plans. Traveler’s insurance may cover some things but will likely be limited. It is important to examine all of your options for paying for healthcare and medications while you are abroad and have some strategies in place before you arrive, if possible.

Doctors: It is always good to start off with a primary care physician (sometimes called a general practitioner or family doctor), as they can serve as the main point of contact for you. If you have a medical condition that requires the expertise of a specialist (such as a cardiologist, neurologist, rheumatologist) your new PCP may be able to refer you to someone. It also may be a good idea to contact the local health department or an association, like a local chapter for Diabetes or Breast Cancer.

Medication and treatments: Different countries approach medicine differently. Some countries, like the US, rely heavily on prescription and over-the-counter medications for treating everything from cancer to mild headaches. However, if you are moving to a country where access is limited (like an island or a mountainous region), import costs, weather, and other obstacles may delay pharmacy orders, particularly for medicine that is rarely prescribed to locals. You may also find the same limitations with non-prescription medicines, so for someone who takes daily doses of aspirin for blood pressure, it might be a good idea to stock up before you leave. If you tend to treat every minor ache with medication for pain relief, moving abroad may also offer you the opportunity to explore new methods of coping and it may be worth asking a local physician their opinion. Be sure to also take into account any treatments you receive (such as dialysis, chemotherapy, nebulizer) that require you to go to a clinic or have uninterrupted access to electricity. Be sure to ask about the frequency of power outages, the cost of a generator, or possible treatment alternatives.

Transport and accessibility: Some cities and countries have a long and ancient history. While the terrain may be beautiful to look at, it may present mobility challenges for those who need accommodations like wheelchair ramps, consistently paved roads, or wheelchair accessible amenities. Finding out where the most accessible parts of the city are as well as learning about the best transportation options will help you to move about more freely and confidently in your new home.

Check Local Chapters of Associations By Diagnosis

Organizations like those dedicated to Breast Cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, or Autism are often affiliated with larger international organizations and supported by local physicians. These organizations may provide some of the best insight into everything from connecting you with the top doctors in the field to preparing you to deal with local conceptions or attitudes toward your disease. These local groups can provide tremendous support and connection in an unfamiliar land.

When you are dealing with a medical illness or physical condition it can be tempting to avoid risk and gravitate towards things that are comfortable. But why should we limit our experiences? Digital connectivity makes living abroad more accessible than ever. You may even discover that access to different healthcare systems or treatment approaches may lead you to improved health and greater support. Do your due diligence and then do you!


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