Surprise medical bills and tourism

Surprise Medical Bills Overseas


Outrageous Hospital Bills While Traveling Abroad

Travelers may be surprised to learn that their domestic health insurance may not cover any emergency doctor of hospital visit outside the US. According to a recent survey by InsureMyTrip, over 56 percent of Americans aren’t clear whether their domestic health insurance works while traveling abroad. Generally, coverage varies widely and without proper coverage in place, you’ll be on the hook for surprise medical bills.

That’s why travel insurance that includes overseas medical insurance is so valuable. It can fill in the gaps left behind by domestic health insurance and provide coverage for emergency medical evacuations and translation services.

According to a recent report by Travel + Leisure, the price for a hospital stay can fluctuate by country. The most expensive rates per night for a hospital bed are Monaco ($3400) and Luxembourg ($1800). And, even if a country provides universal health care for its residents that doesn’t mean a traveler will get a free ride.

Most Expensive Hospital Beds (Per Night)

  1. Monaco ($3,400)
  2. Luxembourg ($1,800)
  3. Norway ($1,330)
  4. Qatar ($1,300)
  5. Switzerland ($875)
  6. San Marino ($838)
  7. Denmark ($800)
  8. Ireland ($797)
  9. United Arab Emirates ($720)
  10. Netherlands ($704)

Source: Travel + Leisure, (2018)

And, if you’re wondering what it’s like to actually go to a hospital abroad. Here are some real-life surprise medical bills for tourists. (For those a bit squirmish, read with caution.)

Vertigo in Turkey

I was in Turkey when I got severe vertigo. I couldn’t stop throwing up. I couldn’t move. The room wouldn’t stop spinning! My guesthouse owner put me in a car and sent me to the nearest hospital. Nobody spoke a word of English there. They put me in a room on a drip, ran lots of tests, and kept me there for half a day. Eventually, they handed me some pills but didn’t have enough English to tell me what was wrong with me (some googling later told me I had something called BPPV). I wasn’t sure what the pills were, or even how many to take. They asked me to call my travel insurance company to find out what my excess was. Upon finding out it was £250, they handed me a bill for exactly £250! So, I didn’t have to negotiate with the travel insurance company for the claim, but did have quite a disorientating experience.

Arm Fracture in Mozambique

Hospital Admission Forms
A hospital admission form in Mozambique.

A few years back, my sister’s arm was clipped by a minibus while the driver was trying to avoid potholes in Mozambique. She had an x-ray at the local hospital but because the gear was so outdated, it didn’t pick up a fracture. It was until a couple of weeks later where it was picked up on the way home in Hong Kong. She went without a cast for almost two weeks until a much flashier X-ray machine in Hong Kong finally worked out what was the wrong party and paid for all the medical costs and a business class seat home.

(Source: The Travel Tart)

Spaghetti Wrist in Spain

In a freak accident while traveling in Spain. I slipped and fell through a plate glass door, severing an artery, two nerves and five tendons in my right arm. There was an overwhelming amount of blood. My wife fashioned a tourniquet out of a belt and held it until an ambulance arrived. I had an eight-hour surgery and spent four nights in the hospital. The hospital stay was covered by my primary health insurance provider but they are still fighting over the surgery bill. Overall the care in Spain was excellent. I am slowly regaining limited use of my hand.

Broke Arm in Ireland

Broke arm in Ireland

Recently, I broke my arm while mountain biking in Ireland (I’m a US citizen). I had the amazing experience of locals helping me handle the immediate emergency, transfer to the local hospital in Killarney, and the related medical procedures I experienced.

I spent about half of a day at Kerry General Hospital after a mountain bike spill that yielded some great interactions with the Irish that I’ll never forget, such an incredibly sweet and hospitable country. After some initial examination, cleaning, sling setup, and x-rays – the doctor determined that I had fractured my left radial head. They ended up setting my arm in a cast for 24 hours where I returned the next day for an appointment to remove the cast, position the arm in a proper sling, and sent me on my way with a prescription for painkillers.

It made for a fun flight home, but the whole experience cost me out-of-pocket…$300. With no additional insurance coverage (the $300 was just a chunk of my deductible). What would that have cost in the US? Some quick Googling yielded prices of around $2,000 to examine, cast, and x-ray.

If you want to avoid surprise medical bills while traveling outside the US and want emergency medical coverage, visit InsureMyTrip.

Updated: August 15, 2018

5 comments on “Surprise Medical Bills Overseas”

  1. Dentist in Thialand. Start of a 12 day tour and husband had a crown that fell off. Our tour guide shipped us by tuck-tuck to a local dentist who spoke no English. Husband had services of a dentist and his assistant, broken translation by another patient and all we understood was the the dentist “tied it up and see your sentist when you get home”. We fully expected to be cash poor when we left but the bill for an hours service was equal to $12. US dentist laughed, said the Thai dentist did a good job and no further work was needed!

  2. I was in Bangkok to visit a hospital for an intestinal problem I incurred on the island of Koh Phangan. The medicine I was given there I had an allergic reaction to. This not being my first allergic reaction, I knew all of my skin would peel head to toe. I headed to Koh Chang Island to soak in the ocean and let the fish eat the dead skin. The next morning the skin on my only hand, I have one arm, swelled like a balloon as if air were injected just under the skin. I went to the hospital, such as it was, and no one there knew what to do. They told me to go to Bangkok. Barely able to travel back to my accommodation on the other side of the island, I spent the next 3 weeks in the shade in the ocean with the fish. My insurance paid for both hospital visits but I didn’t even claim the rest. Mai pen rai–no problem!

  3. I fell and broke my arm in two places while on a long weekend in Lisbon. A taxi to the hospital cost about $20 USD, the triage, four x-rays, consultation with an orthopedic surgeon, closed reduction of the fracture, and full arm cast totalled $170 USD. I was told to visit an orthopedic doctor when I arrived back in the US, which I did-that visit alone was more than the treatment in Portugal, although he didn’t do anything except ask me some questions and open up the cast due to some swelling post-flight. No insurance, but my deductible would have been much higher anyway so it made no difference.

  4. Even if you are a retired doctor, as I am, a strange language that you do not speak can make trying to obtain medical care a real challenge. I speak conversational German, but most doctors in Germany speak English anyway. But that does me no good in China, Japan or Vietnam.

    I strongly recommend that travelers always carry their smart-phones with them. If you can get on-line in the Hospital or even at a local McDonalds you can download information about your symptoms and possible treatments. Better yet, you might find an APP that will help you translate the language of the country you are in. Even if you have to pay for it, it is worth uploading it!

    When you travel with comprehensive travel insurance, the insurance company hires “medical managers” who have access to almost any foreign language. Also, travel insurance companies have access to people in almost any city or country that can help you. Even if you were yourself very wealthy, it would be impossible to obtain those “contacts.”

    Your medical “concierge” at the travel insurance company will find someone who can translate the language where you are and then tell you” what’s going on.” When in China with an infected inner ear, my medical “concierge” himself spoke Chinese and knew exactly what was going on.

    I personally will not travel without comprehensive travel insurance. Interestingly, when you need it…you never consider what your premium for it was…

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