Last May, San Diego resident Maribeth Mellin fell and broke her femur on the first day of a solo trip to D.C. for her best friend’s memorial service. With coronavirus restrictions in place, she was truly alone in a hospital for a week.
“In terms of medical care, I was pretty well off,” she says. “I have Kaiser Senior Advantage health insurance, and there’s a Kaiser program in D.C. Once the hospital figured out the geographic differences, they had all the info they needed — medications, doctors, etc. I’m kind of a good-luck story.”
Not everyone shares Mellin’s relatively good fortune. Although most of today’s travelers are obsessed with carrying proof of coronavirus vaccination or negative test results, few take any other health information. That’s a mistake.
“The number one cause of medical error is miscommunication,” says Teri Dreher, a registered nurse and patient advocate in Chicago. She advises her patients to create a one-page medical record/synopsis for themselves and each of their family members that they can easily carry when they travel, whether to another state or another country.
Dallas physician Jessica Shepherd, who is also chief medical officer of the health news site Verywell Health, agrees. “Travel is a big part of our lives and not looked at as a big risk. Yet if you or a traveling companion become ill or are injured, it’s stressful, and it can be hard, in a time of need, to communicate effectively,” she says. “A self-created form is key to getting someone the best care quickly without guesswork and allows physicians to be prepared and efficient.”
“Time is so important in a hospital,” Dreher adds. “If you can hand them something helpful, you make a friend right away, and you will command more respect instead of hospital staff spending 20 to 30 minutes trying to piece information from you. Plus, when you are stressed, you forget things.”
Although carrying a printed piece of paper may seem old-fashioned to some, Dreher and Shepherd say it is the most efficient way to save time in an emergency. Because you will probably create the document on your computer, you may want to email it as an attachment to yourself and your emergency contact.
And although you’d think there would be a smartphone app for this information, during my research, I couldn’t find one that was widely touted by the medical community. You can put some information for first responders in the lock screen of your phone, but the following list is more thorough.
Here’s what to include in your own lifesaving medical profile.
Who you are. At the top of the sheet, put your legal name, address and date of birth.
Emergency contact(s). Shepherd says to designate someone as your emergency contact, presumably a person to whom you have sent a copy of your info. It should be a friend or family member who is accountable and easy to reach.
Your decision-maker. List the name and contact information for your durable medical power of attorney or health-care proxy. You want people to know who your legal representative is if you can’t make decisions on your own behalf. Everyone over the age of 18 needs to name one. If you have a do-not-resuscitate order, mention that as well.
Medications. When you go to an emergency room, this is one of the first things they will ask you, because this can limit mistakes or unwanted interactions. For each medication — prescribed and over the counter — include the name, dosage, number of times it’s taken per day and why you take it. Include any supplements, too, because some may interact with anesthesia or other medications, Dreher says. It’s also a good idea to have a copy of prescriptions for glasses or contact lenses.
Allergies. List any allergies or intolerances to medications, foods or latex. This will help those treating you avoid complications; for example, people sensitive to shellfish may also experience a reaction to dyes used in radiological exams. “This is the most critical kind of information emergency room staff need to know to help someone be treated urgently and in a timely manner,” Shepherd says.
Current medical conditions and devices. Conditions such as asthma or diabetes or devices such as pacemakers can affect what treatments can be given and how procedures are performed. For example, in-the-ear hearing aids may have to be removed before a patient undergoes an MRI.
Health-care providers. Include a current list of health-care providers, both primary care and specialists, along with their phone numbers.
Treatment regimen. For those with a medical condition such as cancer or heart disease, it is wise to add any sort of specific treatment regimen. “Protocols are not necessarily the same, especially if you travel internationally,” Shepherd says. So write down: “I take this on Day 1, this on Day 2, then have this treatment, take this on Day 4 and so on.”
Medical history. This should include things such as childhood asthma and past diagnoses, even if you are currently taking no prescriptions for the condition, as well as any past surgeries.
Health insurance. Even if you carry your health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid card, put that information, including any membership numbers, on your sheet. “I don’t normally carry my Medicare card, but now I realize I should have it with me whenever I leave California,” Mellin says. “I now have a photo of it on my phone, too.”
Vaccinations. Although you may need proof of vaccination for the coronavirus, it is important to list any other vaccinations, such as shingles, influenza or pneumonia, along with the date administered. That tetanus shot may be outdated, or you may require a booster.
One more proactive measure: Survey your intended destination. Carol Beck-Edgar, former executive director of Montana’s Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau, says its office gets calls all the time from tourists planning a trip into the area, a gateway to Glacier National Park. “They ask us what sort of health care is available in the region and about the local hospitals’ capabilities to handle certain chronic conditions. And we are happy to provide that information.”
Shepherd says that, depending on your age and health status, if you are going to spend considerable time in a specific destination — say you are a snowbird and split the year among two residences or plan to stay several months at a vacation home — it doesn’t hurt to establish a relationship with a local general practitioner.
But whatever their age or health status, all travelers should carry their personal medical record. “Prevention is always better than treatment,” Shepherd says. “When something happens, you don’t want to wish you had this information. You want to have it.”
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.