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Make sure you’re covered for medical evacuation abroad

By Robert Tillotson

Global travelers and expats living abroad must be prepared for the worst. A broken leg while hiking a remote area or falling ill while visiting a rural village may require emergency medical evacuation via air ambulance. Often referred to as “life flight” in the US, air ambulances are medically equipped helicopters or airplanes that transport patients to the nearest hospital with adequate medical care. In remote parts of the world, that hospital may be hundreds of miles away.

In many cases, local jurisdictions do not charge for medical evacuation, particularly for emergency calls. This is not, however, universally true. The cost of providing air ambulance service is considerable, and many such services, including government-run ones, charge for it. An air ambulance ride can cost upwards of $50,000. That would ruin anyone’s vacation.

Most domestic health insurance plans don’t cover the cost of medical evacuation. That’s why I advise my clients to purchase an international medical evacuation benefit, particularly when traveling or living in remote areas or places with poor medical care – but I recommend it for any traveler. Even in large modern cities, quality health care can be difficult to access. Medical evacuation coverage can help.

Medical evacuation service plans offer one option for travelers. Such plans give members round-the-clock access to a service that arranges medical evacuation and coordinates appropriate treatment along the way. Another option is to purchase a travel insurance policy with a medical evacuation benefit. A travel health insurance policy covers routine and urgent care as well as medical evacuation.

Of course, none of us anticipate the need to be airlifted to a hospital. But ponder this real-life example: On a business trip in Moscow, “Mike” suffered a life-threatening stroke. Even though Moscow is a large, modern city, Mike received substandard treatment there. Paramedics mistakenly thought he was drunk and pumped his stomach, and he suffered a seizure on the way to the emergency room.

Luckily, Mike was a member of an international medical evacuation service. When his wife, Myra, didn’t hear from him, she called the service. She was put in touch with an English-speaking doctor, who located Mike and communicated with the hospital in Moscow to assess his condition. The service then conducted a medically supervised evacuation, flying Mike to London and transporting him to a renowned hospital there for treatment. The service also flew Myra from Toronto to London to be with her husband. Mike eventually recovered and was transported home.

These services often respond to more that medical emergencies. A leading international medical evacuation service recently flew more than 800 people out of Egypt during the political upheaval there. Via seven flights, the passengers were escorted to Frankfurt, Paris and Dubai to escape the growing danger in Cairo.

Depending on the plan you choose, membership services and health insurance policies offer varying degrees of medical evacuation coverage. Most plans are surprisingly affordable, and they can be purchased for a single trip, multiple journeys or on an annual basis. Whether you’re taking a one-week vacation or plan to live abroad long-term, an international medical evacuation plan should be the first thing you pack.

For more information on travel health insurance and medical evacuation services visit

Robert Tillotson is from consulting Offshore Health Benefits, LTD,


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