Harvard Health Publications

Medical crises don’t take vacations

Posted By Howard LeWine, M.D. On July 8, 2013

The sudden hospitalization yesterday of Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while vacationing on Nantucket Island is an unfortunate reminder that illness can happen at any time—even during a vacation.

Heinz Kerry was taken by ambulance on Sunday afternoon to Nantucket Cottage Hospital. She was accompanied by her husband. After being stabilized, she and the Secretary of State were flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. As of Monday morning, neither the hospital nor Heinz Kerry’s family has commented on the nature of her illness. News reports say she is in critical but stable condition.

Heinz Kerry’s situation highlights the value of electronic medical records, and the hazards of not having, or being able to access, medical information when you are travelling or on vacation.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, mandates the development of secure, comprehensive electronic medical records by next year. Some hospitals and physicians already have electronic medical records for their patients. These records make it possible to share information with doctors across town, or across the globe. Most people don’t yet have their medical information in an easily shareable format.

In fact, it’s a safe bet to assume that if you are away from home and need emergency medical care, doctors won’t have access to your medical records. So it’s a good idea to carry at least a list of your (and your family members) medical problems, medications and doses, recent treatments, allergies, and other important health information. Keep it safe and secure, but make sure someone else knows where to find that list if you aren’t able to access it.

A potentially life-threatening event can happen at any time—even if you are in good health. Vacations are no exception. In addition to your list, it’s also a good idea to have completed, signed, and have witnessed an advance directive and health care proxy.

If you haven’t prepared an advance directive and you can’t communicate your preferences for treatment, medical choices will be left to worried relatives or to a doctor or guardian appointed by a judge, none of whom may have a clear understanding of your values, beliefs, and preferences. An advance directive lets you decide the kind of care you want to receive. A health care proxy lets you designate the person who can speak for you when you are unable to communicate.

Not very relaxing thoughts for a vacation but, as we wait and hope for the recovery of Heinz Kerry, something worth considering.

Related Information: The Health Care Power of Attorney and Living Will

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