Expatriation – a medical viewpoint

The last few years many companies have had strong focus on saving travel costs, which has for example resulted in conducting web meetings, e-learning and cutting down on expatriate assignments. However, there is still a need for companies to swop or insert expert knowledge, competences and skills. Or just simply; developing talent by exposing them to different circumstances and challenges. And challenges there are when you move to a different country. In this blog post I will share an angle about expatriation that you possibly haven’t heard that much about – the medical angle.

I am fortunate to know a doctor who works with expatriates and is passionate about the challenges that this client group are exposed to. He wrote his doctoral thesis on French expatriates in Brazil, which included their issues around the health care system. Dr. Franck Scola is deeply engaged, together with a local organization called “Petite Planet”*, in arranging activities and information for an expatriate community in Provence. I had the occasion to see a presentation Scola made to this community last week and to ask him some questions:

(*Director Marie Ravoire was the first person to launch a francophone site for expatriates)

“What are the most common health problems caused indirectly or directly by expatriation?”

–        Actually the picture is rather complex. A common physical stress reaction may be digestive problems, but moving to another country influences many aspects of your health; physically and mentally. Everything around you is different; the air, the water, the smells, the sounds – this affect your body and mind. It can lead to a psychosomatic result that causes stress at work and with your family. Depression, or culture shock, in various degrees is not uncommon, and it is likely that the expatriate will not seek help due to the taboo around depression and lack of information on where to get help (in a language that s/he can understand). Both digestive problems and degrees of culture shock may come and go during a longer stay abroad.

–        I would like to mention that one tends to forget that the expatriate spouse is even more exposed to the new changes (communicate with the school, find a plumber or electrician, get telephone lines, meeting people while shopping, etc), and s/he usually has less support than the person at work. If the spouse has left his/her own job to follow their partner, their status in society changes (and/or in own eyes) and this may feel quite hard to handle at the beginning.

“Is there anything that can be done to prevent these problems?”

–        Yes, of course. Getting information upfront means a lot. Knowing something about the new country and its culture and how the health system works, for example. Make sure you know what is covered by your health insurance. When you have arrived, get a family doctor that establishes your medical records, ask how the pharmacies are organised (e.g open during weekends?), understand where to go in case of emergency, contact networks, get into clubs, do sports, try to learn the language. It is important to avoid isolation; therefore I would recommend getting active right away. As a family; talk about the changes, the good and the bad. Be sensitive to the family’s needs.

“Where can expatriates get help to overcome problems when they have occurred?”

–        A good starting point is your family doctor. It is better to make contact sooner than later, physical and/or psychological problems could get worse if you wait (a tendency is to wait until there is a planned trip back home).

“Anything else that could be useful to know?”

–        Learn about the local diseases and conditions, e.g insect bites. Get some advice from the locals on how to prevent them. If you move from a cold to a warm climate where you can experience heat waves, think about practical elements like not doing sports in the middle of the day and always making sure you hydrate yourself.

Adding a point myself, I believe in having a curious and positive mindset when moving to a new country. Don’t expect to have the same life as at home, your friends and family are far away and it is likely that it will take quite some time to get new friends. Regarding the stay abroad as an adventure may give you an attitude that helps you when things are difficult. And ENJOY all the things you don’t have at home!

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