The Brancatelli File



September 23, 2004 -- Want to see a business traveler's knees turn to jelly? Want to hear an otherwise confident world traveler hemming and hawing? Want to reduce a globe-trotting executive to stuttering incoherence?

Just ask about travel insurance and their preparations for on-the-road illnesses. Politely inquire about whether they are adequately covered for that overseas leisure trip they've planned. Quiz them about how they expect to deal with an emergency medical situation on the road.

Business travelers are pretty smart. We know more about airplanes and airports and hotels and dining than the average bear. But we have this blind spot about our own travel health and medical coverage. And I'm no better off than you. I didn't realize how undercovered and unprepared I was until the nice folks at Town & Country Travel magazine asked me to look into the topic on behalf of their upscale leisure travelers. I did weeks of research and came up with some solid suggestions for a piece that will be running in the magazine later this year. The problem? I hadn't been following most of my own advice.

Since I know a lot of you are headed off for a fall leisure trip in the next couple of weeks, let me offer some fresh and practical tips for keeping our travel-medical ducks in a row. And I promise that I'm taking the very same advice as I'm dishing out here.

Once upon a time, I threw some bandages, ointments and unguents into my toiletries kit and they've been squirreled away in there (thankfully unneeded) ever since. Not good enough, say the experts. We should have a well-organized, up-to-date first-aid kit with us whenever we travel.

A good first-aid kit will help you immediately address a wide range of nagging maladies and possibly mitigate the need for a doctor visit or trip to an emergency room. You can put together your own kit or buy a pre-packaged version from a good drugstore or a travel-supplies company such as

The experts say a good travel first-aid kit should be stocked with over-the-counter basics like antihistamines and decongestants; pain and fever medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil) and/or aspirin; a mild laxative and anti-diarrheal drugs; cough suppressant; antacids; antifungal and antibacterial ointments; 1% hydrocortisone cream; and first-aid items such as bandages, gauze, tweezers, thermometer and antibacterial handwipes. Your kit should also contain more-than-adequate supplies of personal prescription medications. Make sure you keep them in their original packaging with the pharmacy labels attached and be sure to carry copies of the prescriptions.

I'm one of the world's truly lucky ones. I haven't been hospitalized since I had my tonsils out as a kid. And except for some sports-related stuff, I've only had need of a doctor twice in adulthood. But you probably have a longer medical history than I do. So have your doctor prepare a portable version of your medical history. (Marlene Fedin, the Wellness Concierge, offers an excellent primer on preparing a personal medical history at her Web site.) If you do require hospitalization or medical help on the road, the information can speed up your treatment, prevent errors and maybe even save your life.

Check page two of your U.S. passport: "Persons considering foreign travel should determine what health insurance coverage, if any, they require while outside the United States." But too many of us just don't get it: Homegrown health insurance may not cover overseas illnesses or medical and hospitalization costs. And even if it does, you're almost guaranteed to be paying a much higher deductible or co-pay for treatment overseas.

Bottom line: You probably need some additional travel-health insurance. So check with your company and/or your insurance provider and get a detailed explanation of what's covered, what's not and what extras you may need to buy. Here are some questions to ask: What are the dollar limits on the cost of emergency overseas care? What kind of medical consultation, medical referral and language assistance is provided? Is it available 24 hours a day around the world? What are the policy's medical exclusions, especially in the area of pre-existing conditions and pregnancy? What kind of coverage is offered should you need to be evacuated for medical reasons?

Where should you get your travel insurance? The U.S. State Department Web site lists 20 firms that sell travel-health coverage, but there are dozens of companies who peddle policies through travel and insurance agencies and via the Internet. There is also a bewildering variety of coverage options, some sold per-trip, some sold for a predetermined amount of time and some sold on an annual basis. Business travelers are probably best served with an annual policy. Most commonly available policies are supplemental, which means they pay for costs that are not covered by your existing health coverage.

When a medical crisis hits overseas, travelers with travel-health insurance should turn to their insurer. Most offer referral services for doctors who speak English and the nearest reliable hospital or treatment facility. U.S. Embassies and Consulates are also prepared to make referrals. In a pinch, you can also turn to your credit- or charge-card company. Many offer free international referral services for doctors, hospitals, dentists, pharmacies, lawyers and the like. One example: The American Express Global Assist Hotline, available 24/7 from overseas by calling 715-343-7977 collect.

But the single best source for English-language emergency assistance overseas may be the non-profit International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers. IAMAT now operates in 125 countries and members receive a directory of participating physicians, specialists, clinics and hospitals. The practitioners even agree to a set payment schedule: $55 for a weekday office visit and $75 for a "house call" to a hotel. IAMAT membership is free, but a donation is requested.

Sometimes injuries or illnesses are so serious that travelers require emergency evacuation from where they are working or vacationing. An evacuation could cost upwards of $50,000, travel insurers say, and few traditional health policies cover this contingency. Many firms sell evacuation coverage separately or as part of their more comprehensive travel-health policies. But there are some hitches: The insurer usually decides if the medical facility at your destination is adequate and the insurer almost always decides if you should be evacuated and where you will be sent.

But one company, Medjet Assist specializes in medical-evacuation services. If you're hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, MedJet Assist will evacuate you to the hospital of your choice and cover all the costs. This on-demand policy sets MedJet Assist apart. Membership in MedJet Assist is available per trip (plans start at $69 a person for 7-day plans) or, more economically, on an annual basis ($195 for an individual or $295 for families).

A note to the reader: JoeSentMe members at the Executive and Elite Levels receive discounts from and Med Jet Assist. Check your membership packet or contact me for the details.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.