With my many trips to the US over the years it seems almost inevitable that I would be using travel insurance in America at some point. Even still I was quite apprehensive due to numerous tales as to how expensive medical care in the US is. Now I was about to find out.
I was on a trip to America for two and a half weeks. Enjoying the pleasures of Pennsylvania whilst fitting in some work in between. However shortly in to the trip I noticed an uncomfortable pain in my right side, just below my rib cage. It was what I’d describe as a blunt pain of mild to moderate discomfort. It would come and go in short bursts without any identifiable pattern. Irrespective of if I was walking, sitting or lying down nor what I ate I couldn’t see a pattern.
At first this appeared occasionally and soon passed.
Then as the trip wore on it became more common and marginally stronger. Then in my final week in the US it became an area of considerable concern.
I began some self diagnosis research on the internet (always a step to approach with caution). It seems that the symptoms could relate to a whole host of things including kidney stones, a hernia or even appendicitis. Now appendicitis did scare me.
I was due to fly home in a few days and if my appendix ruptured whilst on a long haul flight I could be in real trouble. Even Harry Houdini couldn’t escape death from a ruptured appendix.
My experience of using travel insurance in America
On early Wednesday morning I called our Corporate Travel Insurance company and explained my concerns. The guy on the other end of the phone said that whilst he couldn’t advise me what to do he would go for medical attention straight away. That was enough to convince me.
He advised me of a nearby walk-in medical center, literally down the road from my hotel. For the walk-in center I would have to pick up any costs then reclaim the expenses from the travel insurance company on my return to the UK. If the medical center referred me to a hospital for tests or treatment then the hospital costs would be picked up by the travel insurer.
I was then charged prior to being seen $130. Yes $130 for being a walk up. That is a lot of money for what turned out to be about a 5 minute consultation with a general practitioner (GP).
I didn’t wait long before I was called in to be seen. Initially a male nurse took my temperature, blood pressure and asked a few questions. Then a doctor came in and asked a few more basic condition specific questions. He then felt my chest and abdomen. As I anticipated his pressing on my abdomen didn’t trigger any new or sharp pains.
Clearly I wasn’t suffering the full symptoms of appendicitis (pains around the abdomen and back, passing blood with urine, fever, nausea, hard stools) so hopefully it was not this I was suffering from. What if it is kidney stones instead? Yikes I don’t want them either, ouch!
He said it was a good thing that I came in since with my flight in a few days I couldn’t take any risks.
He then discharged me with a note saying “Patient was instructed to be evaluated in Emergency Department immediately”. This sounded serious, “immediately”!
The doctor advised that they didn’t have the expensive scanning equipment on site so he couldn’t diagnose me further.
As soon as I got to the car park I called my travel insurer and explained the situation. They explained that they would co-ordinate with their US sister company to send over approval to the Ohio Valley Hospital in Pittsburgh. This is where I’d been recommended to go. Then I could go there with peace of mind that all medical costs in the hospital would be picked up.
Then I waited, waited and waited. I was waiting for my insurer to call back and confirm that the necessary paperwork had been filed. I could head over straight away yet it would still mean waiting for things to be sorted in the back end.
Eventually I was assured that things were in place so I headed into the Emergency Department (called A&E (Accident and Emergency) in the UK).
As I entered I was incredibly surprised, the place was deserted! In the UK you’d dread to walk into A&E since they tend to be overcrowded with people waiting.
I registered at Reception and informed them of my suspected ailment. As I sat and waited 2 more patients walked in and settled down. Naturally not knowing their symptoms I wondered if they’d be viewed as more urgent than myself?
Thankfully not as I was soon called through and placed into an examination room.
I followed instructions and undressed to my underwear and put on the ever so fetching hospital gown. Then rested on the bed awaiting further attention. To the left of me on the wall was an information board which included names of all my dedicated medical team.
Then in walked my nurse, Diane. After introducing herself she inserted a cannula in my arm (crikey I hate those things). A blood sample was taken and blood pressure measured, my temperature being recorded was followed by a request for a urine sample.
Whilst these were being tested a young girl walked in wheeling a computer on a trolley. “Registration” she cried and I knew this was the moment of truth. As she logged my personal contact details she then inquired about medical insurance. I handed over my travel insurance card and explained all the information I’d been told.
At first I thought everything was okay but then her boss walked in saying they needed more information, including a US address for the insurer otherwise they’d bill me directly and I’d have to claim back. Now I certainly didn’t want that.
So more phone calls were made and eventually she got all the information she needed so I didn’t have to worry.
I appreciate the US medical system is primarily insurance basis, whereas the UK has a free at the point of service medical system through the NHS (National Health Service). Yet I often fear what happens to you if things don’t stack up. You are not insured or your medical / travel insurance doesn’t stack up. Will they refuse to treat you? Leave you in agony or unconscious whilst they get their dollars?
I then met my doctor who basically asked the same questions as the one in the walk-in medical center. I also showed no painful reaction when he pushed on my abdomen.
He advised that they’d send me for a CAT scan to see if they could identify what was causing the pain.
He did find it interesting as I explained my medical history. Some of the procedures I’d been through and medical terms used were very different in the UK to the terms in the US. He said he understood what I meant but the terms were new to him. I thought this was a little weird too. I know us Brits and the Americans use confusingly different terms for many things but surely medical terms need to be universally understood?
Nurse Diane reappeared and advised that I needed to drink a solution to help the imaging results on the CAT scan. Diane said that most patients found the solution horrible to drink. Ah so now it is clear why they sent me the pretty female nurse. She is the one to relay bad news and stick sharp objects into my skin. Cunning ploy by the hospital I think.
I was then left for 40-50 minutes whilst it settled. Then another new face appeared. This guy took me via wheel chair (which I quite liked if I’m being honest) to the CAT scan room and performed the imaging tests.
A further wait of around 40 minutes was required before the doctor reappeared with my CAT scan results.
The good news is that my appendix, kidney and liver all looked fine. My blood and urine results were excellent. So what could the pain be?
He suspected it was either gall stones or problems with my gall bladder. The great news is that it was not urgent and I was fit to fly! I just needed to follow up with my doctor once I returned to the UK.
I was however given a prescription for some pain killers and anti-nausea pills to ease the flight home.
Again the reality of medical costs in the US struck a cord with me. I took the prescription to a CVS Pharmacy, received two small pill bottles containing in total 22 pills and was charged $50.98. Ouch! In the UK these would cost £16.10 (~ $26).
All I can say is thank goodness I was using travel insurance in America. The level of care was very good and I can’t complain at all about it. The costs are pretty steep though. Without travel insurance a dream holiday or trip abroad could turn into your worst nightmare.
Whilst for this trip I was using my company’s corporate travel insurance in America, when it comes to personal travel I always make sure I’m covered.
Update: After returning to the UK I went to see my local doctor and then a consultant. I’m glad to say that the professional view is that it is not even gall stones. It is suspected muscular spasms. Whilst I still feel them from time to time a lot of the pain has eased and I feel a lot like my old self again.