Finding Medical Help in a Foreign Country

What to look for if you are caught in an emergency abroad.

EMTs driving in ambulance
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Nobody anticipates having a medical emergency when they travel to another country. But the unexpected can happen at any given turn. In the event of an illness or injury, would you know where to go for medical assistance? Would you know what to look for when looking for care? 

The International Organization for Standardization has set standards for international signs that all travelers can look for when seeking care while abroad. You can browse their free guide for common signs you might see around the world by clicking here. Let's review the common symbols for a hospital, a pharmacy, and ambulance care. 

Hospitals

Depending on where you go in the world, hospitals will be clearly marked by two symbols: either a cross or a crescent. As defined by the Geneva Convention, the cross and crescent are the symbols for life in danger. A building marked by one of those two symbols is a sign that you've reached a medical care facility. 

When looking for a hospital facility, signs can direct you to the nearest facility. The international standard sign is either a cross or a crescent over a bed. However, different locations may have different standards. In America and Western Europe, look for blue signs with the letter "H" on them. 

Pharmacies

In some cases, you may not need emergency care - but a lesser degree of medical care, none the less. This is where pharmacy care can come in. An international pharmacy can provide you with some of the items you need for non-urgent care, including over the counter medications, like painkillers and indigestion medicines. Learn more about pharmacies and their international capacities here. 

The international sign for a pharmacy, as defined by the ISO, includes a cross or crescent, with a variety of common symbols associated with a pharmacist - including a pill bottle, capsules, and tablets. Other commonly accepted symbols for pharmacies include the mortar and pestle, and the interconnected "RX" symbol. Another symbol to look for is the color of the sign. While the signs for hospitals are traditionally red or blue, signs for a pharmacy are usually a different color. One of the most common colors for pharmacies international is green.

 

Ambulances

Like every other form of transportation around the world, the colors and shapes of ambulances and emergency care can vary by nation and region. This can make looking for an ambulance a confusing situation for the inexperienced international traveler. How can you tell where to get international assistance in an emergency? 

While an ambulance can be spotted by its large shape, bright colors, and emergency lights, ambulances and mobile care can come in many shapes and sizes - from rapid response cars, to even scooters. A common feature of emergency medical vehicles is the six-pointed Star of Life. This star is most commonly a blue color and features the Rod of Asclepius in the middle (a single snake wrapped around a staff). Like hospitals, ambulances may also feature a red cross or red crescent, as a symbol of emergency care.

Click here to see a gallery of ambulances from around the world. 

If you are American, it's important to register your trip with the State Department. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. By knowing how to find emergency care wherever you are in the world, you can be prepared for the worst situations.