Worst Case Scenario: Medical Repatriation and Flying Home For Treatment

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

When we embark on the adventure of a lifetime, the last thing that we ever really want to think about is the worst-case-scenario. What are the chances of something really bad happening to me anyway? Do I even really need travel insurance? My expat job is covering everything, right?

I’ll admit, I’ve been there. I forgot to purchase insurance a few times, and I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in Chinese hospitals. But aside from tonsillitis, blood poisoning from stepping on a sea urchin, and a horrible bout of food poisoning, nothing that bad has ever happened to me abroad.

But I recently had a huge wake up call. One of my friends in China experienced a brain issue and was stuck in a Chinese hospital for a month before she could finally be flown back to Denmark. I still don’t know exactly what happened since she texts me in Danish and I translate, but I do know that it was extremely serious and she’s still recovering months later.

This whole experience got me thinking… What if that was me?

Medical Repatriation

If you’re really sick or injured abroad, and can’t take a normal flight home, you may want to consider medical repatriation.

Medical repatriation is a fancy term that means returning home for medical treatment. This could mean anything from hopping on a commercial flight home to returning home in a private air ambulance. No one wants to be in an unfamiliar country when they’re really sick, and medical repatriation is one way that you can make this “worst-case-scenario” a little more bearable.

The Different Types of Medical Transport

Worst case scenario, a seriously injured patient will be transported home in an air ambulance. These small jets are fitted with an intensive care unit, monitors, a defibrillator, and a satellite telephone. Specialized doctors will accompany the patient on the Medivac and care for them the entire flight until they’re fully transported to a hospital at home.

However, if the patient is stable and doesn’t need intensive care equipment, there are a few other options which are a bit more economical. Firstly, there is doctor transport, This means you would sit in a normal seat while accompanied home by a doctor. Typically the patient and doctor would fly business class for a bit more room, but economy class is also possible for some. However, if your condition is a bit more serious and you need to be transported lying down, there is a stretcher transport option as well. This stretcher would be installed on a commercial flight and is separated from the rest of the passengers by a screen. You’d be accompanied by a doctor, and any family members or friends would be seated nearby and have access to you.

I’m Having an Emergency Now: What Do I Do?

If you or a loved one is stuck in a foreign hospital and cannot take a normal, unsupervised commercial flight home, you have a few options. Firstly, having someone fly out to be with the person who is sick or injured is always a good idea. No one wants to be alone in a foreign hospital for weeks or months on end! If you do have the means, you should also definitely look into medical repatriation. First, check if it can be covered by any insurance. If you or your loved one has travel insurance, repatriation may be covered. If insurance isn’t an option, I would contact a medical repatriation service and ask for pricing.

If you feel uncomfortable having yourself or a loved one stuck in a hospital abroad, please consider your options. You don’t have to have a major surgery done in Cambodia if you don’t want to. You don’t need to stay in a Chinese hospital for months on end if you really want to go home.

Flying Home Might Be Cheaper

Finally, if you have insurance or free medical care in your home country it might actually be more affordable to fly home. This is especially true if you don’t have insurance abroad.

Definitely, don’t rule out paying for a flight home instead of getting surgeries done abroad. Depending on your situation, even paying for a doctor to fly home with you could actually end up being cheaper than getting everything done abroad.

How to Protect Yourself From the Worst Case Scenario

S*** happens. You can get in a car accident, have a brain tumor, or slip down some steps and break your back anywhere. But if you are living or traveling abroad, you need to take a few extra steps to make sure that you’re covered in case of an emergency.


Please, please, please buy travel insurance! Travel insurance will cover your medication, doctors visits, hospital stays, surgeries and even medical repatriation if necessary. Travel insurance really isn’t that expensive, and it’s much better to be safe than sorry.

2. Check Your Insurance

Some insurance policies cover you when you travel. For example, my expat insurance in China covered me everywhere in the world except the USA. (Because the US is ridiculously expensive, of course). Once or twice I was tempted to forgo travel insurance and just use my expat insurance. However, I have no idea if my expat insurance fully covers all my travel activities! Will my expat insurance cover scuba diving? Probably not. What about medical repatriation? No idea!

3. Remember: You’re Not Stuck

If you do run into the worst-case scenario, there are options. You don’t have to stay for months in a foreign hospital. You’re not stuck abroad with no insurance. There are ways you can get home, even if it does mean spending a bit of money. Just in case you’re ever not in a good position to care for yourself, make sure a family member or friend back home knows what medical repatriation is. It’s important they know all of the options just in case they’re ever in a situation where they will need to make medical decisions for you.

Let’s Hear From You!

Do you have any questions about medical repatriation, travel insurance, or medical treatment abroad? Do you have a crazy medical story you want to share? Be sure to leave a comment below!



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