Despite writing about food and adventure travel for a living, I used to be somewhat blasé about the concept of travel medicine. Multiple incidents of Giardia/dysentery/traveler’s diarrhea/full-body outbreaks of mosquito and sand fly bites just taught me to carry a serious stash of antibiotics in my first-aid kit. At least I’ve always been conscientious about travel immunizations and educating myself about the primary diseases indigenous to my destination.
When you’re young and healthy, it seems silly to have a travel medicine specialist. Although this article is primarily directed at adventure travelers, odds are, the worst thing you’ll come home with is a backpack full of crappy souvenirs. But no one’s invincible, and should you require a specialist for something not responding to conventional treatment or with progressive symptoms, time is of the essence. Many “exotic” diseases progress rapidly, and can cause irreversible damage or death if not properly diagnosed and treated. Even with incurable diseases, the earlier you catch them, the easier it will be to manage symptoms and prevent them for worsening.
No, I’m not a doctor, although I come from a medical family. But I got seriously schooled after visiting Ecuador two years ago. After a fantastic month of adventure activities in remote parts of the Andes and Amazon Basin, I fell seriously ill the last day my trip. Two years of at-times crippling symptoms, 10 CT scans, five medical facilities, dozens of specialists, four surgical procedures, two surgeries, one cancer diagnosis, and near-medical bankruptcy later, I’ve become an expert at being my own advocate.
My infectious disease doctor believes that I contracted a form of bartonellosis called Oroya Fever after being bitten by sand flies. The good news: My health is currently stable, but we don’t know if the disease is in remission or not. But I have permanent cognitive damage, scarring or tumors on most of my internal organs, and intermittent arthritis. But believe me, I feel lucky.
I don’t want anyone to go through the health and medical nightmare I’ve endured, so I’ve compiled a list of essentials in a travel medicine doctor. Ergo, number one with a bullet:
1. Is he/she a travel or tropical medicine specialist?
Pre-bartonella, I used an internist as my GP/prescriber of antibiotics. If you can find an internist, gastroenterologist, or infectious disease doctor who is also a specialist in travel medicine, that’s a huge plus. 2. Does he/she have personal experience traveling or practicing in developing nations?
There are a lot of practicioners who aren’t globally aware, so to speak. You can’t diagnose what you don’t understand, know about, or have first-hand experience with. Period.
3. Is he/she a good listener and empathetic?
It’s difficult to find these qualities in any doctor, especially in today’s medical climate. But it’s imperative to find someone you can communicate with, and who understands what you’re going through if you’re suffering from a mystery travel ailment. Don’t settle, even if you need to travel to another state or country to seek treatment (what stumps doctors here is often commonplace in the country of origin).
4. Does he/she have a good network of colleagues in multiple specialties (including travel/tropical medicine) to consult for additional opinions?
My current mantra is to seek a third opinion, from at least two different medical facilities. That, and to have a travel physician who actively consults colleagues and does additional research to assist with a diagnosis and/or treatment. My infectious disease doctor talked to specialists at a medical school in Peru on my behalf, and even tracked down a relevant medical paper from 1897 as he honed in on a diagnosis. And while I wouldn’t consider it a deal-breaker if the answer is no, see if your doctor is an active and participating member of the International Society of Travel Medicine.
5. Does he/she return your calls/provide you with email, pager, or office number so you can get in touch directly?
I’ve learned that a good doctor who is invested in your recovery will provide an open line of contact to address questions, concerns, and exchange pertinent information. Tip: Please don’t abuse this privilege. Physicians work insanely long hours, under constant stress. And don’t expect to hear back immediately if you leave a non-urgent message; be realistic. A couple of days, fine (many specialists aren’t in clinic every day). A week? Make a polite follow-up.
Whether or not you end up getting a travel doctor, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides loads of useful information, including a directory of global travel medicine clinics with English-speaking staff, and a destination-specific travel health planner. And depending upon what you plan to do on your trip, where you’re traveling, and your financial situation, you may want to invest in travel insurance.