Expat health: 3 steps to staying healthy and feeling good

12 February 2019

Moving overseas presents so many advantages, from enhanced opportunities to engage professionally and socially to a completely new outlook on life. A study by Aetna International reveals that it can even improve your health. In fact, the number of expats who reported “good” or “very good” health was 10% higher than survey respondents who had never lived abroad.

Looking after yourself is also essential to the success of your assignment. Stress and psychological issues are one of the major factors that prompt early repatriation. As a result, there are a few health-related issues you should consider before heading abroad. Here are three strategies for arriving at your host country healthy and staying that way.

1. Manage stress with movement and mindfulness.

Moving causes stress and anxiety, which can exacerbate and trigger underlying health problems, particularly of the psychological variety. “For expats, things like the stress of relocating to a new country, being away from family and friends, changing jobs or having to stop working to follow a spouse, and having to settle the kids in a new routine, can take a toll on mental health,” said Dr. Méli Noël in an interview with the Australia and New Zealand Association (ANZA). Sensible planning and the support of an expert relocation partner will help prevent anxiety (and often in surprising ways) but for expats stress reduction is often low on the agenda. Additional research from Aetna International shows that the very attribute that makes expats successful — openness to risk — actually makes it less likely that they will prepare for mental health issues related to relocation. Mental health wasn’t even on the radar for a whopping 94% of the expats surveyed. (You can read the full report here.)

Fortunately, exercise, meditating, keeping a journal, and engaging in positive relationships are all simple actions that can really help you relax. In fact, Harvard University reports that meditating and mindfulness can improve symptoms related to “an array of conditions both physical and mental,” from digestion to depression. You can proactively anticipate post-relocation stress by establishing a support network prior to departure, via location-specific social media platforms like InterNations and MeetUp. Facebook also has myriad groups for expats around the world. For those who desire additional support, professional help is available via online platforms, which means you can access it before, during, and after your move.

Food and fortitude: prepare your body

2. Food and fortitude: prepare your body.

A thirst for adventure and the thrill of the new often draw people to overseas living. The downside? New germs, and new diseases and even new foods can wreak havoc on even the healthiest body – and many national dishes may come as something of a shock to the system. A recent study published by CellPress, a scientific journal, also found that moving to a new country even affects your gut microbiome, the collection of beneficial microbes that aid digestion and help your body resist disease.

To minimize the impact of the new, take time to prepare your body for this adjustment well in advance of your move. Before you leave, try some of the dishes and ingredients from your new country to see how they agree with you. Eat a balanced, nutritious diet that provides the vitamins and minerals you need for healthy immune function. Above all, before your departure, be sure to get a full check-up for you and your family, and any recommended immunizations and vaccinations.

Do your research: it’s all about to change

3. Do your research: it’s all about to change.

All expats should dedicate significant time to researching treatment and insurance options well in advance of departure. Look to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for summaries of different countries’ health systems to familiarize yourself with health policies in your host country, which may differ radically from what you are used to. Leverage your expat networks for recommendations of doctors who speak your language and specialize in any ongoing medical concerns.

Be advised that your usual medications may not be available in your new host country and, if they are, they may be sold under a different name and/or regulated differently. With that in mind, stock up on over-the-counter drugs prior to leaving. Also, consider asking your current doctor for an extended prescription (that lasts months or years). You can find out the local names for both over-the-counter and prescription drugs on Drugs.com, a searchable database of nearly 200 medicines and their international counterparts. Additionally, many pharmacies have a website or online store where you can see what’s available locally and how much it costs.

If you have insurance through your employer, meet with your human resources specialist to learn about your coverage, how to use it, and the hospitals that accept it.  Pre-existing conditions may not be covered under your new plan, so be sure to ask about a waiting period for certain treatments. Private insurance is widely available if you want additional coverage or if your employer does not provide insurance. Ask for recommendations for reputable insurance companies from long-time expats within your social and professional circles. 

Doing your homework with regards to hospitals, medication and insurance is vitally important for expats relocating to the United States, where universal healthcare is relatively new and very different from national healthcare schemes in other parts of the world. The country’s prescription drug costs are unregulated by government, and there are a plethora of competing insurance companies nationally. As a result, America has the highest prescription medicine costs in the world, and what you pay out-of-pocket is determined by your individual insurance plan.

A positive outlook is the best medicine

A positive outlook is the best medicine.

Moving overseas can be stressful, and everything from unfamiliar food to different medical systems can have implications for your health. But the positives outweigh the negatives. Evidence suggests that embracing a new culture increases happiness, learning a new language helps your brain work better, and living overseas makes you feel healthier. With a little planning and a positive mindset, you can minimize the risks associated with relocation and maximize the benefits before you even arrive.

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