International traveling with medications?

It’s something that most don’t think about. Many readers of this blog are lucky enough to not have chronic medical problems, but not all are. Still, most of us regularly interact with an increasing number of patients with chronic conditions. And more and more of those patients are traveling internationally, potentially due to the treatments they are now able to receive. But what are the rules for people travelling with their medications and medical devices?

These authors set out to figure out how hard it is to find the requirements for travellers who may need to bring medications or medical devices with them. They determined 25 popular destination countries for Australian tourists, and then searched their embassy websites for 5 categories of information pertaining to medications, required documentation, and customs information. They also sent an email to each embassy requesting information about the same topics. They then rated the embassy websites using the RATER scale, which is a modified Service Quality tool (SERVQUAL).

In 2 weeks, they got responses back from 11 of the 25 embassies they had emailed. This lack of service was mirrored by the impressively low scores the embassy websites received on their RATER scales. And even though the title and attempt of the study was to include medical equipment, neither the email responses nor the websites gave any guidance on medical equipment.

More concerning is the fact that no country followed the recommendations of the International Narcotics Control Board, which is an independent body that exists to help carry out the UN Drug Control Conventions.  All of them had more restrictive policies, some so severe as to require the patient to go to a local physician to certify that the medication is needed. Now, we mostly talking about narcotic and psychotropic medications, and generally supplies of less than 30 days. Anabolic steroids will also raise eyebrows in many countries.

Basically, the recommendations boil down to these.

  • Only possess your own medications
  • Carry the prescription or other documentation for those medications
  • Check with competent authorities in your destination countries well before travelling

For travelers planning on spending more than 30 days? Not much guidance, as you probably will have difficulty bringing it through customs initially, and you may have trouble getting prescriptions filled once there. And for those with medical devices (think neurostimulators), make sure to carry backup batteries and plenty of documentation for them.

Unfortunately, while the thought behind their study was valiant, the poor response rate combined with apparently terrible embassy websites means that each person travelling with controlled medications has their homework cut out for them. Still, without much else out there, it gives everyone a place to start.

Note that this doesn’t apply to medical providers carrying medications for expedition or humanitarian purposes. There is an entirely different set of rules for that.

Travelling with medications and medical equipment across international borders
http://www.travelmedicinejournal.com/article/S1477-8939(14)00133-1/abstract

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