For students planning to earn a degree overseas, the preparations don’t end after selecting a school, applying for a visa and booking plane tickets. Future international students also need to spend time researching the health care risks and resources in their destination country.
“Don’t take your health for granted,” says Dr. Deborah Mills, medical director of Australia’s Travel Medicine Alliance, a network of medical professionals that specialize in the health of international travelers.
Medical care quality and insurance requirements can vary widely from one country to another. Students need to take different pre-departure steps to prepare themselves, depending on their destination.
Here are four health-care-related questions students should consider as they plan their international studies.
1. Will I need to purchase health insurance? Some countries have public health care systems and don’t mandate that international students purchase insurance. Sweden, for example, allows international students staying for a year or longer to receive public health benefits simply by registering with the Swedish Tax Agency. That’s what Angelina Ho, a second-year master’s student at the University of Borås, did. When the Singapore national came down with the chickenpox last spring, her visit to a local hospital was free.
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Other countries, such as Australia and Germany, require foreign students to have insurance coverage. Students from the EU can obtain a European health insurance card in their home country, which provides access to public health resources in other EU countries – and Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway or Switzerland – at the same cost as locals pay.
University websites usually contain information about health insurance requirements and options for international students.
For students considering plans offered in their host country, Rachel Quennell, a third-year bachelor’s student at Leiden University in the Netherlands who hails from Australia, recommends they ask a native speaker of the country’s language to go over the plan details with them to make sure they understand everything.
Quennell, who also holds British citizenship, says the Dutch health care she’s received – including surgery in August to remove her parathyroid gland – has been affordable, thanks to her insurance and a subsidy she receives from the government as a student to help pay for it.
2. What vaccinations do I need? Medical professionals can help students determine what vaccines they will need based on where they are going, what they will be doing and any preexisting health conditions. “It’s not cookie-cutter at all,” says Tanya Chadwell, a certified family nurse practitioner at Capitol Travel Medicine in Arlington, Virginia, who holds a certificate in travel health.
The three categories of vaccines to consider are required, recommended and routine.
The yellow fever vaccine is an example of a vaccination that is sometimes required. It is necessary for entry into parts of Africa and South America.
When it comes to recommended vaccinations, “the classic travel vaccines for most developing countries where the health infrastructure is poor would be hepatitis A and typhoid,” Mills, of Australia’s Travel Medicine Alliance, says.
Students’ routine immunizations, which in the U.S. include those for hepatitis B, measles and the flu, should also be up to date before they head abroad, experts say.
Vaccines are important, but they are just one aspect of the preparation needed for international travel. Experts say students going abroad for longer periods of time should have full physicals and dental exams before they leave home.
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3. Can I bring my prescription medications? Medications prescribed in one country may be illegal in another. Students can contact embassies or consulates to find out if certain medications can be legally used abroad, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before leaving home, students should obtain a signed prescription that contains both the medication’s generic and brand names. Students should also get a letter from their doctor explaining the medical need for their prescriptions as well as the recommended dosages, particularly for injectable medications or controlled substances, such as some attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medications.
Students with a history of medical issues may want to also ask their doctor for a letter outlining past diagnoses and treatments, says Mills. “Treating patients and medicine is generally about getting the right clues,” she says, “and if there are lots of clues in the letter, you’re going to get better care.”
4. Should I bring any over-the-counter medications? The CDC offers “healthy travel packing lists” for dozens of countries around the world. The agency generally suggests international travelers pack some items that can be purchased without a prescription, such as antacids, mild laxatives and pain relievers, for trips to many destinations.
When it comes to over-the-counter medicines, Ho, the international student at the University of Borås, says if you’re “dependent on the particular brand, it’s better to stock up from your home country and bring it to Sweden.”
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According to the U.S. Department of State students with allergies to particular foods or medications or other medical conditions should consider purchasing a medical alert bracelet, which notifies medical professionals of these health issues in the event of an emergency. Students can also purchase medical alert cards online that are available in many different languages.
When preparing to study in another country, medical professionals say it pays to be prepared.
“It’s really balancing the enjoyment of travel, and the adventure and the great things that come out of this kind of experience, with the knowledge of risks and how to reduce those,” says Chadwell.