Health Care Abroad: Tips and Tricks

For those of you curious or concerned, here are some details of my experience with the health care industry while studying abroad, and what I wished I would have known before I stepped in blind.

Everyone has their own idea of their worst nightmare coming to fruition, or their worst case scenario. For me, one of the top ones was getting sick while living abroad and having to get treatment and advocate for my health needs in a different language. And as Murphy’s Law tells us, if anything can go wrong, it will.

Some notes on health care options through IES and some things I wish I had known ahead of time:
  • Students that are feeling unwell, even with just a cold or the flu, but feel that they need medical attention, must go to the hospital. We don’t have primary care physicians like we do in the US since we are international students, so we are seen by the doctors in the emergency room
  • Interpreters are offered to assist you during your hospital visit free of charge
  • Take someone with you!! Sitting in the hospital in a different country alone is scary and confusing, especially if you’re not feeling your best or thinking very clearly. It is extremely helpful if that other person speaks spanish fluently
  • Wait time at the hospital for more minor conditions can be a few hours long, so having someone wait with you can help to pay attention to when it is your turn if you are too sick to pay fully attention
  • The international health insurance company reimburses you for the medical bills you pay, however you need to bring money with you or have a good amount of money on your card to pay upfront
  • The reimbursement period takes nearly a month due to Covid delays, and does require a little bit of paperwork on your part to start the process
  • If the hospital bill is very expensive or you simply do not have the money on hand to pay it upfront, request an invoice (the bill) to be emailed to you. They will let you go home and the bill can be paid later without penalty. You can have the insurance company pay the hospital directly as opposed to getting reimbursed, so no money comes out of your bank account
  • The cultural health insurance is not the same company as IES, so you have to call or email the insurance company with any questions, not the IES employees, since they aren’t affiliated
  • Double check what services are included under the health insurance and what aren’t. For example, therapy for mental and emotional needs may be covered, but physical therapy for a hurt limb may not be

My experience

From the first day arriving in Spain, so many things were drastically different from my life in the United States, and the effects of being out of my comfort zone ware exaggerated by the fact I had rarely left my house to do much of anything since the start of the pandemic. Therefore, suddenly being thrust into a world of new food, new places, new people, new time zone, and new language was draining and overwhelming.

I was generally exhausted the first few weeks after arriving, but I attributed it to jet lag and getting adjusted to my new life. However, when the extreme tiredness persisted past a month and was joined by other symptoms such as body aches, loss of appetite, and stomach pain, I knew something just wasn’t right.

I went to the hospital by myself, hoping to quickly and easily fix the problem, where they did a few health tests, prescribed me some medicine to dull my pains, suggested a change in my diet from the residencia food, and sent me on my way. A few weeks later, nothing had gotten better, and I had developed a terrible cold on top of my previous symptoms.

Brooke vs the hospital Round 2 *ding ding*

This time, I shared with Cristina (the head of our residence) that I was planning on going to the hospital again to seek answers and hopefully a better solution than before. She already knew that I had been struggling with my mental and physical health since arrival, and wanted to make sure I was being properly taken care of. She drove me to the hospital this time, waited with me, and talked to the health professionals with me. She also comforted me when I got lightheaded from getting my blood drawn for testing. I did have to stay quarantined in my room for 4 days until we received a negative COVID test just in case. During this time, Cristina brought me my meals, hot soup, and chocolate to soothe my cold and make me feel better. Finally, around the 2 month mark since arriving, I began to feel better and more normal.


I definitely did not want to spend my first two months of studying abroad to consist of me recovering from ailment after ailment, but sometimes that’s just the way life goes. I’m very grateful that I am feeling much better now and seem to have my health in check, and now have the knowledge I gained from my experience to try to lend a helping hand to others who may find themselves in similarly tricky situations.

Some of the tips listed above may seem self explanatory, but for me, it was one of my first times ever going to a hospital, much less dealing with an insurance company while juggling school and extra curriculars in a different language. I learned a lot from the experience, and I hope that you can learn from my mistakes if you ever need to get medical attention abroad.

Stay healthy, folks!

Published by brookekale

Class of 2023 Global Studies and Spanish Double Major, Political Science Minor IES Granada, Spain

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