Employers should encourage staff to declare their medical history before travelling for business, to avoid potentially costly and complex healthcare issues once abroad, warns Towergate Health & Protection.

Different environments can aggravate existing health conditions

Knowing the medical history of an employee means that businesses can risk-assess a country before sending an employee abroad, and support an existing health condition. For example, an employee that has asthma may struggle in areas with severe air pollution – such as Beijing in China. Knowing about this medical condition in advance enables the business and individual to make a thoroughly researched decision – such as working around the air pollution by not travelling at rush hour* and ensuring a robust supply of inhalers – or sending the employee to a different location entirely.

Medicines may be disallowed in some countries

Drugs or pain killers that are accessible in the UK, such as medicinal cannabis products**, may be banned abroad – meaning that a health condition can’t be managed as effectively in another country, or the employee may suffer heightened discomfort. Knowing about a health condition and required medicines in advance enables the employer and employee to find out whether:

  • It is legal to take a prescribed medicine abroad
  • Prescribed medicine is available to source once in the country
  • Effective alternatives can be arranged
  • A letter from a GP, confirming the need for particular medication*** may suffice

Failure to conduct healthcare due diligence in advance could result in a tricky confrontation at customs, removal of medication required in a foreign country or prosecution. Laws of each country where staff travel need to be understood and complied with.

Difficulty accessing quality medical facilities and specialists

Emerging markets present exciting new business opportunities, but access to specialists and quality medical facilities may be limited. An employee needing urgent medical attention for an existing condition may require air evacuation to more robust facilities if the right care isn’t available in-situ, and this can prove difficult if the relevant protection to facilitate this hasn’t been arranged beforehand. In Azerbaijan, for example, medical facilities – even in the capital Baku – are limited and a serious illness or injury may require evacuation to Turkey or Western Europe, for example.**** For employees travelling with their families, especially with young children where health can deteriorate quickly, it is vital that relevant provisions are in place to support the need for potential urgent medical attention; or that an alternative location is chosen for work.

If an employee has an ongoing condition that requires regular healthcare appointments and check-ups, then being assigned to a location where suitable medical facilities are far away could render a role impractical – if too much time is required away from work. So it’s important that businesses understand the medical facilities that are available, in relation to an employee’s current requirements, to see if a foreign posting is feasible.

Outdated health profiles can cost dearly

When sending staff abroad for work, employers need to ensure they have processes in place to collect up-to-date health records from their employees, to ensure the latest heath profile is available. Failure to depict an accurate picture of current health could result in potentially avoidable emotional and financial distress.

It’s important to encourage employees to be open and honest when declaring their current state of health, as hiding conditions can render any protection – such as company-organised international private medical insurance (IPMI) – invalid. Terms and conditions when using IPMI differ across each country, so the more accurate a current overview of health, the better the protection. And with the cost of treatment abroad continuing to increase, with major surgery costing an average of £75,000 in the USA,***** it can be financially crippling if healthcare insurance isn’t in place or is invalid.

Sarah Dennis, head of international for Towergate Health & Protection said: “Trying to deal with a medical situation once it has happened can be stressful and costly. Businesses should try and avoid this by ensuring that the medical records of their employees are up to date, so provisions can be made to support an ongoing health condition. This could be anything from sourcing additional support, such as having GPs at home available for video calls, to suggesting an alternative foreign assignment.

“Ensuring that employees have the relevant insurance when travelling abroad is crucial – it provides peace of mind that they are protected should they encounter a medical problem. But it’s also important to have robust solutions in place in the event of emergencies – such as evacuation options. Businesses need to ensure that employees fully understand their duty to disclose their medical history before travelling for work, so appropriate support can be provided if required.”

* https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/triggers/pollution

** https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-46374191

*** https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/medicines/can-i-take-my-medicine-abroad/

**** https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/azerbaijan/health

***** https://www.moneysupermarket.com/travel-insurance/medical-costs-abroad