Lola Méndez is no stranger to new experiences. Méndez. 29, an American freelance travel writer, has explored 56 countries, documenting her adventures on her blog. She has visited ancient tombs in Vietnam and trekked across mountains in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
While working as an English teacher in Spain in 2015, she had to embark on a new kind of undertaking: going to the gynecologist in a foreign country. Many women don’t look forward to their yearly exam, and language barriers made an awkward situation all the more unnerving for Méndez. But her appointment soon went from uncomfortable to degrading.
When she asked for a sexually transmitted infection screening — a routine request for yearly exams — the doctor told her that it wasn’t worth his time. If she had an STI, he said, she’d just get another one. Méndez tried to insist, but he refused again and again, telling her only prostitutes contracted STIs. They went back and forth until she was in tears. “It was just so demeaning. I was doing something to check in on my health and he made feel like I was a prostitute,” Méndez said.
Méndez then skipped future annual appointments for nearly two years, fearing she would be shamed by another doctor. Her experience is unfortunately common among women looking for reproductive care, both in the U.S. and abroad, as they cope with stigmas and laws that vary country to country and even city to city.
People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, similarly face bias in health care systems worldwide. More than 50 percent of the community reports receiving discriminatory treatment from health care providers, and that number jumps to 70 percent among only transgender people, according to Lambda Legal, an advocacy organization.
Each person’s concerns are unique, but no one should be afraid to go to the doctor if they get sick. Here are some tips for finding better, inclusive health care while traveling abroad.
Connect with locals and expats
Travelers can use social media for more than just making their friends envious of their dream vacations. It can also serve as an indispensable resource for finding quality health care while traveling.
Social networks can serve as a sort of digitized version of the whisper network that women and LGBTQ people have long used to protect themselves from potential threats. Facebook groups exist for just about every identity and destination around the world, functioning as an invaluable resource for people who end up needing to seek health care abroad.
“Any kind of online social group I think could be one avenue for looking for options and making connections locally — and hearing what’s going on on the ground,” said John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association.
At the same time, both Tanzella and other experts in the field of travel health medicine urged travelers to use caution when taking advice online. Tullia Marcolongo, executive director of International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers, warned against using social media for questions on travel vaccines in particular, an area where misinformation can be rife on the internet.
Do your research in advance
When it comes to your health while traveling, knowledge is power. Travelers should make themselves familiar not only with the specific health risks of any given destination, but with its laws and culture. Dozens of countries around the world have restrictive laws surrounding sexuality, and those can affect the type of medical care you get when you need it. In Qatar and the UAE, for example, being pregnant and unmarried is illegal and can carry a jail sentence. While these laws mostly target migrant workers, they technically can be applied to anyone. In upward of 70 countries, same-sex relationships are a crime.
Alongside the usual travel warnings from the State Department, Equaldex and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association track sexual orientation laws by country, so you can be prepared before you even book your trip. Resources from the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association offer planning tools for destinations around the globe. New resources such as Gynopedia can also be indispensable to women travelers, as the crowdsourced wiki provides information on reproductive rights around the world.
Local U.S. embassies post lists of English-speaking doctors in any given destination, as do travel organizations such as International S.O.S., the International Society of Travel Medicine, and International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers. None of these lists are LGBTQ or women-specific, but the doctors listed have usually trained in Western cultures. The International Consortium for Emergency Contraception provides country-specific information for emergency contraception in particular.
Balance safety and honesty
We often assume that doctors’ offices are a space safe from judgment, but for many people, complete transparency can attract undue risk. When Lani Fried started Gynopedia, she learned in her research for the site that in dozens of countries, women could put themselves at greater risk if they openly discussed sexuality with a health care practitioner.
“There’s the question of honesty versus safety,” Fried said. “You want to be honest about your needs and be able to communicate them, but in certain environments if you’re completely honest, you might feel like you are exposing yourself to more judgment, or harassment, or kind of creepy behavior.”
Bring the essentials in your carry-on
Many travelers don’t realize that their insurance usually doesn’t cover them while traveling abroad.
Travelers insurance can fill the gaps and provide quality coverage when you’re away from home, but it’s especially important for anyone who might have an added health need. The same goes for medication, as access to birth control and hormones vary greatly around the world. In some cases, they’re even illegal to obtain after arrival. Bring extra medication in your carry-on and read up on the laws and restrictions of your destination so you’re not stopped at customs when you enter.