Pre-trip health screening for expatriates

A pre-trip health screen is an essential part of preparation to ensure the best chance of international assignment success.   

Pre-trip health screening

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Thorough pre-trip preparation is the key to overseas assignment success.
  • Always confirm if a specific medical check is a visa requirement for the host country.
  • Engage a medical professional with specific expertise to carry out pre-trip screenings. 

Employers have a much greater chance of avoiding medical emergency and repatriation costs if they put in place adequate preparation for travellers, including health screening, education, travel medicine and risk assessment. Furthermore, in some countries, medical checks are a requirement for the visa application process.

A proactive approach to healthcare

Medical assignment pre-screening can catch a wide array of health issues that could turn into real problems for expatriates once abroad. Chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol can be hard to manage if there is no adequate treatment available locally, so screening can alert expatriates to this and allow time for appropriate preparation. 

Screening can also reveal health concerns that the assignee may not even have known about, which can then be addressed quickly before the trip. For example, minor dental procedures that may be easier to carry out prior to departure.

Elements of a pre-trip health screen

A pre-assignment health screen should include screening for high-risk medical conditions, especially cardiovascular problems, which are a common cause of health repatriation. Certain conditions will need to be treated and stabilised before departure. It should also facilitate the treatment and follow-up of known chronic diseases.

Consultations should also include screening for latent diseases (without symptoms), based on the clinical examination and the medical laboratory data. Early diagnosis makes it easier to treat these conditions and often improves the prognosis in the medium and long-term.

They can also help with preparation for the health-related conditions of the destination country, such as the updating of vaccinations and other preventative measures, such as for malaria.

Given the sensitivity of health data, the relevant data protection legislation must be followed and appropriate waivers obtained beforehand. 

Psychological screening

Psychological suitability for expatriation and mental health during deployment will also have a significant impact on the chances of a successful overseas assignment.

Pre-deployment screening may include: measures of mental health (depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]); risk factors (childhood trauma, family risk, and adult trauma exposure); and resilience factors (coping, social support and healthy lifestyle) to assess baseline mental health during preparation for deployment.

Using international expertise

A medical travel professional with knowledge of the host country should be sought for expatriate health screening, because a family doctor may not know all the risks associated with the country concerned.

The health screen should be tailored to the needs of the expatriate and their family, and offer advice relevant for the specific assignment.  

The outcome of screening

A proper pre-trip screening programme will inform expatriates and employers of any health issues that may affect them while on assignment. This will ensure that special medical assistance or insurance can be arranged in good time.

It is important to note that pre-existing conditions prior to the expatriate’s departure may not be covered by a typical medical insurance policy.

Some assignees may even voluntarily opt-out of the assignment when they understand their own specific health risks. In such cases, the employer may well be avoiding expensive emergency medical and repatriation costs further down the line.

Finally, where an employer is seen to be taking care of the expatriate with proper healthcare and insurance, it is likely to have a positive effect on morale and engagement, which can only contribute to the success of an assignment.

Sally Hart is executive director of the International Benefits Network, a network of independent employee benefit consultants in more than 70 countries around the world.