As an American early retired budget traveler and breast cancer warrior, I often have to buy prescription drugs overseas. I’ve done it now in several countries, and I’ve learned a few things from real-world experience.
In this post, I will share what I’ve learned, and outline how I buy quality medications in the foreign countries we visit. I have never hit any major obstacles, but I can see where someone who is inexperienced or unarmed with research could fall flat in this effort.
A disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional and none of this is intended as medical advice. I’m simply sharing my experience as a possible resource for anyone willing to do their own due diligence in their own effort to find quality medical care outside the USA.
Fears about quality health care overseas at reasonable costs can be deterrents for Americans to long-term travel, but they don’t have to be.
How to buy prescription drugs overseas
Step 1: Get over your preconception of doctor visits
Americans have this conception of doctor visits that does not fit reality in other countries. In the U.S., in order to meet your health insurance rules, you have to book an appointment with a doctor — and certainly a specialist — many weeks or months in advance.
That’s not the case in many foreign countries.
In fact, I often have been seen by foreign doctors — and specialists — on the same day I inquire about an appointment. The longest I ever had to wait for an appointment was one week. And I’ve scheduled appointments further out than that because it was my choice, due to our travel schedule.
Step 2: Find a local doctor
How do you find the doctor? Ask around!
As I’ve written before, use local Facebook groups with expats and local people to inquire about respected doctors and hospital groups. I give these experiential referrals much more weight than some international accreditation program, because the doctor or hospital pays such programs for inclusion on their referral lists. Would you rather see a doctor a local has experience with, or a doctor who has paid to be on list?
Make sure the doctor you chose is fluent in English.
Another tip: use the U.S. State Department’s website. Find the country you will visit, look for medical assistance. Since I am in the Philippines as I write this, I will use that as an example, which you can see here. Almost every country with a U.S. Embassy has this. Medical facilities and professionals make it onto this list usually because an American in the country has had some sort of experience with the listed entity. Of course, the State Department does not endorse any doctor on the list, and holds no liability.
Or, let’s say you feel like you might have something like bronchitis and you feel you may need antibiotics. Some cities have doctor’s offices that will take you right away. Mexico, for example, has doctors connected with Similares Pharmacies and serve walk-ins.
Here in the Philippines, many doctors take walk-ins for simple things like fevers and coughs and wheezing. I say again: simply ask!
Step 3: Get your consultation
Once you find a doctor or hospital, how do you book an appointment if you’re not a walk-in patient? Ask!
If you need a fairly routine prescription, such as tamoxifen for breast cancer recurrence prevention, just about any oncologist on the planet will be happy to see you in a consultation to write a prescription.
Some hospitals have international patient desks with staff to specifically help foreigners. This is especially helpful in countries where English is not a primary language. If it’s not possible to see a doctor who is fluent in English, arrange for a translator who is.
It’s worth noting: some countries will not accept foreign prescriptions. This is why I always see a doctor in the country I’m visiting.
And don’t stress about the doctor’s visit price. I’ve paid $5 in Mexico for a Chikungunya diagnosis, $10 for a flu diagnosis in the Philippines, $20 for an oncologist visit in Malaysia — and the oncologist was kind enough to give me his personal email! (Remember Step 1?)
If you are scheduling something serious, like surgery, your office visit is likely to be expensive. But for easy medication orders and routine visits, arranging to see a doctor is so simple in so many countries.
Step 4: Order your prescription at a pharmacy
How do you find the pharmacy to fill your meds? I’ll give you one guess…
Yep: ask! Shop around like you would at home. Use those Facebook groups. Ask the prescribing doctor. And remember, just like at home, hospital pharmacies often are more expensive. But depending on the country, it might be your only choice, yet I bet it will still be cheaper at a foreign hospital than in an American hospital.
Sometimes different pharmacies will have different prices, different generic alternatives. Sometimes, in third world countries, some pharmacy chains may not have the drugs you need. For example, here in the Philippines, not every pharmacy has tamoxifen. Neither did pharmacies in Albania.
To that end, leave yourself plenty of time when order prescriptions overseas. You don’t want to wait until three days before you leave a location only to find out you can’t get the meds you need.
For example, I stocked up on tamoxifen in Liloan, near Cebu City, Philippines, before our trip to a remote area on Bohol Island, where tamoxifen is not likely to be found. My order took three days t fill. Why? Because average Filipinos don’t usually buy six months supplies of drugs at one shot, so it had to be ordered from the warehouse.
One more quick tip on pharmacy selection, especially in the tropics. Pick one that has air conditioning. You don’t want medication degradation due to constant heat and humidity. Every label will tell you that.
Step 5: Reimbursements & picture proof
These tips may help anyone – but I know nothing about reimbursements for Medicare. I’m an early retired American budget traveler. We pay out-of-pocket for stuff like this. If you plan to work out something with some sort of insurance, you may need to submit picture proof.
I take pictures of our receipts for all medical expenses, and where applicable, I include the diagnosis forms or medication packaging in the picture, as well. I do this for health savings account reimbursements — not insurance claims. Also, these digital versions of small papers and clunky medication boxes are more realistic for world travel.
The picture of receipts and prescriptions also serve as proof I own the medication as I leave one country and enter another. Countries such as the Philippines are strict about medications. A quick download from the cloud can prove I’ve received a valid prescription for the medication I’m carrying.
Now you know how to buy prescription drugs overseas.
If I want to add anything else, it’s that I hope your journey for medical care abroad is as easy and efficient as mine has been.
Health is wealth, and it’s necessary for world travel. And so is an open mind when you set out to buy prescription drugs overseas. Good luck!
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