Visiting the OB-GYN is daunting enough, but doing it in a foreign country? You need to be extra prepared.
Like most people, I’ve never looked forward to a gynecology appointment.
Even after several years of working in an amazing public health center that reinforced the importance of preventive health care, I avoid scheduling my women’s health visits. And it’s not because I’ve had bad experiences. To the contrary, every gynecologist I’ve seen has been wonderful, taking care to ensure I feel comfortable and safe. One even put purple fuzzy socks on the stirrups to keep my feet warm.
But there’s no getting around it: after eight years of annual visits, I still dread my gynecology appointments. And going to one in a foreign country? Forget about it.
But life happens, and I recently found myself living abroad in the south of Spain during the time of year when I have my annual exam. I could have put it off. I almost did. It was so tempting to wait until my next trip back to the States. What’s another four or five months? I thought to myself. The 11:00a.m. appointment in my calendar haunted me for weeks, reminding me I was going to have to undergo one of my least favorite experiences, and do it in a foreign country, in a foreign language, no less.
My public health training and sense of personal responsibility kicked in, mercifully, and I kept the appointment.
I climbed onto the bus that rainy morning and marched myself into the office, reminding myself that I’d feel much better after the appointment was over, even if it was difficult to get through it.
I’m pleased to say that the appointment was, in fact, a breeze. It went much better than I expected, at least partly because of the steps I took to make and prepare for it. Here are my best tips for how to survive a visit to the gynecologist abroad.
1. Get travel insurance
This step should be completed before you so much as set foot on foreign soil. I was required to purchase at least three consecutive months of travel insurance as part of my visa requirements, since I was applying for a long-term residency visa that would allow me to live in Spain. I recommend purchasing travel insurance for any trip longer than a few weeks, though it may even be worth it for a shorter trip depending on your destination, your planned activities, and your health concerns.
My travel insurance didn’t cover my costs up front (more on that later) but once I paid for the visit and got a receipt, I was able to submit a claim to the insurance company for reimbursement. Without coverage, my out-of-pocket costs for the visit and subsequent lab tests would have set me back over 200 euros.
After having worked as a health insurance advocate for several years, I know all too well how quickly medical bills can skyrocket without coverage. Research your options (I happened to choose World Nomads, but there are dozens of companies out there) and buy at least a basic plan that covers you in the country or countries where you’ll be traveling.
2. Research how the local healthcare system works
Having studied abroad in Spain during my college years, I had a vague understanding of the healthcare system here. I knew that Spain has public healthcare, like pretty much all European countries, and that Spanish citizens have what they call Seguridad Social to cover their medical expenses.
What I didn’t realize is that, since I am not a Spanish citizen, I can’t access that system.
I typed in a Google search health centers in Córdoba, the city where I’m currently living in Spain, and called the first one that came up in the results. When the receptionist answered the phone and asked me where I live, I answered, “Córdoba!” He responded exasperatedly in Spanish, “Yes, I know, but where in Córdoba?” It turns out that health centers in Córdoba (and likely Andalucía and very possibly all of Spain) are assigned by neighborhood. When I gave him my address, he told me to call the health center in my area and promptly hung up. Another Google search, another phone call, another cheerful provision of my address in the clearest Spanish I could muster. Another rejection. While this was the right health center for my address, the second receptionist said gently, I can’t access services there since I’m a foreigner and don’t have public health insurance in Spain. She told me that my only option was to go to the Red Cross Hospital.
A quick five minutes of Internet research informed me that travelers in Spain can only use private physicians for non-urgent medical needs, which would have been good for me to look up before I wasted half an hour on the phone. Once I had the information I needed, it was simple to find a nearby private gynecologist and call in for an appointment. Health systems vary from country to country, so be sure you do your research ahead of time. Know the basics of how and where you can access medical services, and look up clinics in your area so that you know who to call right away if you need an appointment. That way, you’re not stuck wasting precious minutes on your limited international phone plan only to be turned away.
2. Brush up on your medical lingo
I often don’t know the proper medical terminology I need in English, let alone in a foreign language. Since I used to work with Spanish-speaking patients at a health center, I already had a basic knowledge of Spanish medical vocabulary, but not nearly enough to communicate everything I knew I’d need to in my gynecology appointment. Before heading to my appointment, I looked up important terms that I knew would come up, such as PAP smear/cervical sample (citología) and STI (ETS). Know the names of any health conditions you might have. I have an eating disorder history and do blind weigh-ins at every medical appointment, for example, and I needed to be able to explain this in Spanish to the medical assistant. Even if you’re fluent in the language of the area where you’ll have your appointment, it can be helpful to look up a few words or phrases in advance since most of us don’t use medical language in our daily lives.
If you don’t speak the local language at all, try to find a medical provider who speaks English (or another language that you might speak). This can be as simple as asking locals or expats for recommendations or asking when you call ahead to schedule your appointment. If you’re staying at an Airbnb or hotel/hostel, chances are your host or staff have fielded recommendation requests for doctors before and may be able to send you to an English-speaking one.
Without clear communication, your gynecology appointment is pretty much useless, so this is the most important step. The last thing you want to do is get to the end of the visit and realize you only understood about ten percent of what your doctor said to you. This comprehension will also help the visit go more smoothly and make you feel a hundred times more secure throughout the process, since you’ll be able to understand exactly what is going on and request all the services and tests you may need.
3. Ask (lots of) questions
There are no stupid questions in a medical appointment, and this goes double for one in a foreign country with a new doctor in (possibly) a language that is not your mother tongue. Chances are that the procedures are at least a little bit different than they are back home; for example, instead of going straight to the exam room and meeting the doctor there, I first went to his office with an old-fashioned gleaming wooden desk to discuss my needs, then was led to the exam room by a nurse. He didn’t do a breast exam, which is ordinarily part of the annual exam in the United States. And I had to go to an unaffiliated laboratory in order to get a blood test taken, whereas in the US I can typically do that right in the doctor’s office.
Regardless of whether you’re at home or abroad, gynecology appointments are also an important time to be proactive and take charge of your health. Use the opportunity to talk to your doctor about reproductive or sexual health concerns, birth control options, and anything else that may be on your mind. It may be tempting to get in and get out, especially if you’re anxious like I was, but the truth is that every medical visit we have is an opportunity to better support our health and well-being, so take advantage of it.
4. Don’t sweat it
Okay, I know this is way easier said than done. I’m always nervous before a gynecology appointment, no matter where in the world I am. But as long as you’re prepared and have taken the steps suggested here to ensure your appointment goes smoothly, you’ll be fine. I’ll be the first to admit that no medical provider is perfect, but a vast majority of doctors want to help you as much as possible and care just as much as you do that you have a positive experience with them. My gynecology appointment here in Spain was quick, painless, and surprisingly easy. The doctor ended up being one of the kindest providers I’ve ever met. The nurse was particularly gentle with me, since she knew that I’m not a native Spanish speaker. And the exam itself was the most physically comfortable one I’ve ever had, which is a feat for someone who tends to get so tense that I have to meditate before going into the exam room. Ultimately, it was one of the best medical visits I’ve had in a while.
Going to the gynecologist abroad doesn’t have to be scary. Not only will you be doing your health an important service, you’ll feel like a badass after completing the doubly impressive task of taking care of your body like an adult and having successfully navigated a foreign medical system. Make sure you treat yourself to a gelato, mango sticky rice, or whatever the local delicacy is afterwards – you deserve it!
Image via shutterstock.com.