HOUSTON -- Americans are traveling farther afield than ever. As they take to the nation's highways, jet-set for their jobs and buy vacation homes abroad, an industry has developed to transport those who face medical emergencies.
An estimated one in 30 international travelers will need some kind of emergency care while away from home, according to The Merck Manual, a medical reference book. A few years ago most of these would have been at the mercy of local hospitals.
A sprained ankle in London might not be so bad. But a broken back in Katmandu is another thing.
Companies including Global Rescue and U.S. Air Ambulance have made a niche of plucking travelers out of scary medical situations far from home.
Birmingham, Ala.-based MedjetAssist contracts with dozens of medical-jet services that can rush to the aid of sick globetrotters.
John Gobbels, director of transportation at MedjetAssist, said he has arranged for medical transportation and escorts for just about every kind of accident and incident imaginable - a hunter on safari accidentally shot by one of his travel companions; a missionary in Zimbabwe almost killed when a tractor rolled over him; a woman on vacation in Rome who tripped on a cobblestone street and shattered her pelvis.
"It all came about because more people are going more places," he said of the industry. "They all want to know there's a backup plan in case something happens."
Mike Weingart of Carlson Wagonlit Travels in the Galleria area said that as travel insurance packages have improved, many have added medical evacuation coverage. One policy he recommends provides $50,000 to $1 million in medical evacuation coverage in addition to coverage for lost baggage, trip delays and other travel snags, he said.
Like AAA for the body
Gobbels, who declined to disclose company revenue, noted that MedjetAssist is not insurance. There is no reimbursement plan. Instead, the company acts like AAA for the body. While auto clubs send tow trucks to pick up disabled cars, medical evacuation services like MedjetAssist dispatch air ambulances and specially outfitted jets to pick up travelers who are injured in accidents, have heart attacks or otherwise become severely ill.
Membership fees range from $85 for one week of coverage for an individual to $895 to cover an entire family that lives outside the U.S. at least nine months out of the year.
To qualify for transport, members must be at least 150 miles from home and must be sick enough to be admitted to a local hospital and stabilized.
From there, MedjetAssist arranges to move patients by ambulance and air to the hospital of their choice.
When possible, stabilized patients come back first-class on commercial flights rather than medical jets. That's because a medical jet trip can cost from $20,000 within the continental U.S. to more than $125,000 to fly back to the States from Africa or Asia.
"When we can bring them back commercially, with a medical escort, we do that," Gobbels said. "People think they want a special plane just for them, but they really don't. You have got to be really bad off to go that way."
Medical jets are small and cramped because of all the intensive care equipment on board, including respirators, cardiac monitors and intravenous pumps, Gobbels said. After loading two pilots, two medical crew members, the patient and just one overnight bag, there's scant room for family members. In fact, there's not even an enclosed bathroom onboard.
Gobbels describes the medical jet experience as similar to riding in a metal tube. The jets have to refuel frequently because all the heavy equipment means fuel burns faster.
Houstonian Alan Ecklund said travelers don't need to be winging off to Morocco or Patagonia to appreciate the service.
Ecklund, director of national sales for Clear Channel Radio, bought a short-term MedjetAssist membership for his wife, Lisa, before a trip to visit her parents in Waterloo, Iowa, just before Thanksgiving.
"I don't even know why I decided to do it, really. A friend of mine mentioned it in passing, and I felt like it probably wouldn't be a bad investment," he said.
Ecklund said his wife has had medical issues he worried could flare up, and he wanted a way to handle it. Sure enough, Lisa Ecklund landed in the hospital in Iowa.
"What blew me away was that they kept in contact with me even after the coverage expired to see how she was. And they said even though this membership expired, we're going to do the right thing and fly her home if she needs it," Ecklund said.
In the end, Lisa Ecklund was able to recover in the hospital and take a Continental Airlines flight home to Houston, but Ecklund has signed up the family with a long-term membership.
Sandy Cunningham, chief financial officer of Swanepoel & Scandrol, a Houston-area African safari outfitter that runs hunting trips into Ethiopia, Cameroon and Tanzania, among other locations, said the nominal cost of medical evacuation coverage led him to build a membership into every safari package he sells.
"There really wasn't anything to rely on before. Problems are not at all common, but if they do happen, in a lot of places it's not good," Cunningham said. "The farther north you go in Africa, the more Third World it gets. You want to know you can get to South Africa to Johannesburg for treatment."
In the four years Swanepoel & Scandrol has been buying MedjetAssist memberships, the company has only had to call twice for medical evacuation. Cunningham said that both times it was a huge relief to have the service available. Once a client was mauled by a lion. Another time one of the professional hunters had a kidney stone attack while in the bush.
"It's a comfort to the hunters, but it's a comfort to their spouses, too," he said.
Good for frequent travelers
Linda de Sosa, a vice president with Woodlake Travel in the Galleria area, recommends MedjetAssist to travelers who fly a lot. One client who travels seven months out of every year and is headed to Timbuktu, Mali, in March is a good candidate for MedjetAssist, de Sosa said.
Travelers to less exotic destinations than Timbuktu, though, might consider arranging for emergency evacuation.
"Even if you're just on the road in the U.S. but you're away from home a lot, it probably makes sense," she said.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
After a slump following 9/11, international and adventure travel has come roaring back, and with it the possibility of a medical emergency overseas.
The U.S. State Department issued 12.1 million passports in 2006 - more than double the number issued in 1996.
Some 600,000 Houstonians ventured overseas in 2006, according to a survey by the U.S. Office of Travel & Tourism Industries.
One in every 30 international travelers will need emergency care, according to The Merck Manual, a medical reference firstname.lastname@example.org