Travelling to the US? Here’s the Lowdown on Medical Care

Sting famously sang that being an Englishman in New York made him feel like an alien. Well, if Brits feel that level of disorientation travelling to the States, no one else has got much of a chance – because of how culturally entwined the two countries are. 

But one thing that is alien to many foreigners travelling to the US is how the healthcare system works – quite frankly, it’s a mystery to many US citizens as well. This is especially the case for UK travellers, who are used to getting all of their healthcare completely free at the point of delivery on the NHS.

Many non-US citizens come to the country with their heads filled with horror stories of dying patients being left untreated in hospital corridors because they don’t have the right insurance. They worry that if they so much as catch a cold, it will cost them thousands of dollars just to see a doctor and get a prescription.

There are two truths buried in these myths. One is that all medical care in the US does have to be paid for, either directly or via an insurance policy. But hospitals are not allowed to refuse care to anyone in emergency situations. If an uninsured person needs urgent care, they will be put on a payment plan.

The second truth is that medical care in the US can be expensive. The US care system is very much two-tier, with more or less an even balance between private and public hospitals. Public community hospitals are perfectly fine, but they tend to be very crowded and waiting times can be painful. This is because public hospitals deal with the majority of people on ordinary insurance plans (or not as the case may be). As well as actually caring for patients, doctors have a huge administrative burden dealing with insurance companies and so on.

For those who can afford it, private hospitals are much quicker and more efficient, and offer some of the best standards of care anywhere in the world.

Don’t travel without insurance

For anyone travelling to the USA, travel insurance is an absolute must. Even for a relatively minor ailment, there is a high chance you could go to a local clinic only to be referred to a hospital – doctors working in hospitals pick up a lot of work that community doctors in other countries do, even down to handing out prescriptions. If you don’t want to end up in a bureaucratic tangle trying to sign up for a payment scheme – or simply be turned away – you should make sure you have valid travel insurance, and have the documentation with you. 

But the main reason why travel insurance is an absolute must is in the event of an emergency, if you have a serious accident or suffer a serious illness. This is where it does often pay to go private in the US, to get the fastest and most efficient service. But the drawback is – you have to pay. According to the UK Foreign Office, treatment for something as common as a stomach bug or an infection can cost up to £100,000 if you are also ill enough to need flying home once stabilised.

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