Advice for Expats: Health and Medicine

While I usually use this blog for advice and information about Georgia in particular, I couldn’t turn down the chance to contribute to HiFX’ new expat tip campaign (, which offers quality advice from expat experts to those looking to move abroad. With a few modifications I think this advice might even be applicable to people living in their own countries as well, but let me not oversell it – you can decide for yourself.

Getting sick is no fun, and it can be especially stressful and even scary when it happens in a foreign country. Particularly if you are coming from more developed nations into less developed nations, you may have concerns about the quality of local doctors and local medications. On occasion I have encountered situations that proved these concerns justified. That’s why I’ve developed a set of strategies that really come in handy for dealing with foreign medical services. What they come down to is: research everything, then check, then double-check.

In a previous post I went over ways to track down medications you already know you need – finding the local equivalents of anything from Advil to Zyrtec. This post is more about what to do if you actually have to go to a doctor.

Research your condition

When you get sick, it’s a good idea for you to have some idea of what your condition is and what the treatments should be. Even when I lived in my home country, I used to research my symptoms in order to decide when it was time to go to the doctor, and that skill has served me very well in Georgia.

Knowing what to expect when you go to the doctor can help you to judge the quality of the care you are getting and serve as a guide in case a language barrier prevents you from communicating effectively with doctors. It might also help you to find out the words for likely tests, procedures, and conditions if language might be an issue.

Once, I went to the doctor with abdominal pain that I thought could be appendicitis. When the doctor ordered an ultrasound, in Georgian, I knew what he meant and that the test was indicated based on my symptoms. This reassured me and made me feel like I was in good hands and that I was successful in communicating my symptoms to the doctor. On the other hand, if he had ordered an x-ray, I would have been worried that the doctor either didn’t understand me or didn’t know what he was doing.

Check your prescriptions

A lot of doctors in a lot of countries tend to over-prescribe medications. In Georgia it is rare for me to leave a doctor’s office with fewer than four prescriptions. After a few mishaps and a bunch of wasted money, I now go to the internet before I go to the pharmacy.

Here is where knowing the local language comes in handy. Make sure the doctor tells you the names of the medications they prescribe, instead of just writing them down – apparently doctors’ bad handwriting is an international phenomenon. You’ll probably want to try several ways to transcribe the names into Latin characters, if they aren’t already. Once you find the drug, you have to research the active ingredients, indications, side effects, and drug interactions yourself.

This research may be tedious, but it is important – one doctor here prescribed a cough medicine for my son when he was an infant. I researched the active ingredient and it turned out that this medicine was not recommended for children under 2 because it interacted badly with their developing respiratory system and could actually make their illness worse, not better. Needless to say I did not buy that medication, or go back to that doctor.

I’ve also been prescribed antibiotics for stomach aches, sore throats, and even colds. These antibiotic prescriptions for viral infections are not just unnecessary, they are dangerous – they can cause dysbiosis and they encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

If you’re prescribed a medical procedure, check that too. If you don’t want unnecessary medications, you want unnecessary surgery even less. If you don’t trust yourself to do the research, it could also help to get a second opinion – maybe even put in a call to your doctor back home, who could help you weigh your options.

Double-Check your prescriptions

So you’ve researched your ingredients, crossed the harmful or unnecessary ones off your list, and gone to the pharmacy to get the rest of your prescriptions filled. Now you just have to make sure that the pharmacist gives you the right drugs – which means reading the label, possibly in another language.

In Georgia, most drug information is written in Cyrillic, which meant I had to learn a third alphabet in order to complete this step. It’s a good thing I did, because one time I went to fill a prescription for stomach medication and a pharmacist gave me a box of female fertility hormones with a similar-looking name (it seems even the pharmacist couldn’t read the doctor’s writing).

If you’re going in for a medical procedure or treatment, go over everything with the doctor who will be performing the procedure before you start – if necessary, get a translator, and have the doctor walk you through what is going to happen, step by step. Medical errors happen even in developed countries with no language barrier, so while this is a habit I developed in the US, I apply it even more carefully and diligently in Georgia.


Well, that’s it. I hope you found this helpful or interesting. Leave a comment if you have any advice to contribute!

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One Response to Advice for Expats: Health and Medicine

  1. Phil says:

    There’s a couple of different smart phone apps where you point your phone’s camera at text and it will translate it for you. Probably would come in handy if you’re worried about medication:

    Here’s one for iPhone:

    Here’s one for Android:

    Both supposedly support Russian to English.


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