You plan your vacations and retirement, paying careful attention to details large and small. You check each box, working your way down the list. “Got it covered,” you smile and move on to the next item.
But wait. Back up. Are you really as prepared as you think? Whether planning a long-term vacation or a snowbird’s temporary residence, medical planning is at least as important as forwarding your mail and making sure the plants are watered back home. In fact, it’s arguably more important, but you may not be thinking of your medical needs when making your plans.
For many years my husband and I have been “snowbirding” in Florida. Each year we pack up the car and the dog, and we make the long trek south. Our son stays in the house to keep the home base covered. The mail and the plants are easily checked off the list.
A few years ago, after my husband recovered from a very serious illness, we began to rethink our time in Florida, not as an extended vacation but as our winter residence. We already had a vet for the dog, lots of friends and many things to do. But we didn’t have a primary care physician, and we hadn’t given sufficient thought to our medical plans in our home away from home. Now we are better prepared.
Here are some tips to help you do the same.
- Basic information: Make sure you have a current list of medications for yourself and your loved one, along with the names and phone numbers of your primary care physician back home as well as any specialists seen on a regular basis. This is good information to keep handy whether you are traveling across town or across the country. Also be sure to let your doctors at home know when you are leaving and how long you will be away.
- Prescriptions: When packing for your trip, be sure to have enough medication for your entire stay in your home away from home or have an easy means for ordering refills. That could be a mail-order service, a nationwide drugstore chain or a personal relationship with a specialty pharmacy. Either way, you don’t want to wait until you are low on meds to start searching for your refill options.
- Medical records: Bring copies of your medical records if there have been any recent, major developments such as serious illness, major surgery or other, similar problem. You can usually obtain these from your doctor or hospital, but you may have pay for them. Also be sure to have on hand a list of past major health events and dates. You don’t want to create one from memory at the time of a major event or crisis.
- Advance Medical Directives: Sometimes called “living wills,” these documents include instructions about end-of-life care, medical power of attorney and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders. They do no one any good if locked away in the bank’s safety deposit box. When traveling, make sure you bring copies. If you own your second home or condo, you may want to leave copies there.
There’s also an app for that! The American Bar Association offers a smart phone app to store and manage your personal and family documents. It’s free on iPhones and inexpensive for Android phones.
Bear in mind that legal requirements for advance directives may vary from state to state. The documents you create at home may or may not hold up in a second state. There are several websites that may be helpful in determining the requirement for various States. To be certain about these important matters, consider consulting with an attorney who specializes in eldercare law.
- Finding doctors: Don’t wait until you are sick to start looking for a doctor at your home away from home. Make the time to find a primary care doctor to trust and develop a relationship while you are feeling healthy and relaxed. Ask friends and neighbors for recommendations.
You can even ask your doctors at home if they know of colleagues in your adopted state. We asked our orthopedist in Maryland if he knew of anyone in the Sarasota, FL, area. Turns out he had a friend from medical school to recommend. You never know if you don’t ask.
You can also check websites that provide doctor ratings such as www.healthcare.gov and www.healthgrades.gov. Just remember that people are sometimes more likely to post negative experiences than positive ones. These sites can be useful but read the comments carefully and look for trends.
Of course, not all doctors accept Medicare, and some don’t take new or part-time patients. It took some research and lots of phone calls before we found a primary care doctor in Florida. If you or your loved one has serious, chronic conditions, you should consider lining up specialists in those areas as well. A medical crisis is no time to start searching.
- Emergency Plans: Of course you can’t plan for every contingency, but it is good to think through scenarios and have some general plans in place, just as you practice fire drills. These are issues you might want to discuss with your doctors on both ends. For example, are there any situations where you or loved one needs to go home for care rather than staying where you are? Are there hospitals and specialists in one or both areas to meet your expected medical needs?
You can check out hospital ratings on a number of websites to assess areas of specialty as well as patient satisfaction scores, infection and readmission rates and much more. Here are few you may want to visit: Consumer Reports, Medicare.gov, Leapfrog Group and US News & World Report.
There are a number of online tools and apps available to help you organize and store this information. A free one offered by the federal government is www.healthit.gov. There are numerous others easily found through an Internet search. Be aware that your medical information stored online on private, personal sites may not be protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
For this reason you may want to consider using a medical identification bracelet with a built-in USB drive. The information is always with you and easily downloaded by a doctor or hospital.
With medical plans in place, you can enjoy your time in the sun knowing you have taken care of important details and arrangements. Just don’t forget the sunscreen!