International business travel can be exciting and provide fresh inspiration for the job, yet it does not come without risks.
Dr Anthony Renshaw is medical director in International SOS’s Health Consulting Practice, which provides remote health services across the world and advises Fortune 500 companies on safe and healthy business travel.
Belinda Liversedge speaks to Dr Renshaw on the chief mistakes clients make and how avoiding them could save your life.
- If you have a health condition, you may need specialist advice
Obtaining medical advice is a must before travel to tropical or sub-Saharan countries. But don’t just rely on your GP, says Dr Renshaw. “Your local GP may not have the specialist knowledge you need, even if they can treat your individual condition.” He gives the recent example of a client who had an insulin pump for diabetes and was planning to be based in rural Cambodia for work.
Dr Renshaw says: “Your GP might assume the hospital in Cambodia might be able to deal with it. They might assume it’s easy to get insulin while traveling, but that might not be the case.” In the end, the client was advised not to take the placement, because there was no access to a decent level of healthcare, added to the fact they’d struggle to have a diabetic appropriate diet. “They were able to get an alternative placement arranged. That’s a little difficult for your GP to sort out, even more difficult when it’s a country that they don’t know much about or where information about the country is hard to get,” he says.
- It can take up to six weeks to ensure you are covered with the right vaccines
Travelers going to malaria endemic areas in Africa, South America, and Asia are at high risk, but not everyone responds to anti-malarial medication in the same way. Some people who take the drug Lariam, for example, have reported feeling paranoia, hallucinations and loss of balance. Dr Renshaw advises: “It is good practice to try this anti-malarial out first before you travel and when you are in a safe place at home. “You can’t just go to the pharmacy and get the anti-malarial you think is best, it’s prudent to get seen by a doctor first.
"Some of these drugs can have an interaction with medication and make you ill,” he adds. Renshaw says that as a rule of thumb, planning a trip should be done six weeks before departure. “There might be some vaccines that need to be administered far apart from each other and there’ll be some vaccines you need to give at least 10 days before you fly or they don’t work,” he says. Yellow fever is one: “That’s a problem not just because there’s a theoretical risk you might catch it and not be protected, but because the authorities might look at your certificate and not let you in.”
- You may need back up at home to check your symptoms – or it could be fatal
It’s a good idea to have access to medical advice both prior to and during travel, and not assume that a hospital abroad will be able to treat you if there are complications, stresses Dr Renshaw: “We see many cases of people who contract malaria overseas and unfortunately every year we’re involved in repatriating a few travelers who have died of malaria. It should be taken extremely seriously.”
He illustrates with a recent case of a client who died after contracting malaria on business abroad, and then went to a hospital back home in America where they failed to diagnose it in time. “He had fever symptoms – you’d expect they’d be able to pick it up – but they don’t see it very often and they didn’t. So he passed away. Unfortunately, he didn’t think to call in just to talk to someone and check the care he was getting was right overseas, just to run past the symptoms – had he done that we might have been able to get involved earlier and make sure he was tested for it.”
- Travel can impact on your mental health
International SOS’s recent white paper asked 195 business travelers how travel has impacted on their mental health. Nearly one third (31 per cent) said they experienced emotional exhaustion, a core feature of burnout, on a weekly basis. 78 per cent said that they worked more hours than usual when travelling, and almost half of the sample (46 per cent) consumed more alcohol when away on business compared to at home. Stress is a factor that’s often overlooked by companies providing for their employees’ care and support, says Dr Renshaw: “Making sure that travelers have access to support on the road, such as access to counselling, is important. Sometimes if there’s a crisis, you might even need to get a group of people counselled for a serious mental health issue that’s incurred in the workplace.”
He adds, that traveling has many positives, such as helping people get more engaged in the workplace, but that their findings show business travelers are more likely than non-business travelers to have a mental health condition, whilst traveling. “That’s partly because but in itself travel can bring lots of stressors, like not having regular hours, catching up on work from the day, being in an unfamiliar or unsafe place, away from the family – many companies we support are places where there’s poor phone coverage or lack of internet. So, these are the things that sometimes people aren’t aware of.”
- Notify your employer well in advance of a trip, so they can help you
Dr Renshaw says there is a joint responsibility of both the employer and the employee to take the right health and safety precautions before a trip. “Ultimately these people are traveling for work and so it is really the employer’s duty to at least provide signposting to information and to provide access to vaccinations to prevent them getting sick. That’s not to say that the sole responsibility is the employer, there is an individual responsibility to make sure they’re fit and healthy before they travel to go and see their doctor to make sure vaccinations are up to date and if they have access to pre-travel advice it’s up to them to go and get it.”
International SOS www.internationalsos.com
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