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TRAVEL WATCH: MARCH 13, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 10

Who You Gonna Call When Disaster Strikes?
By DAFFYD RODERICK



When British adventurer Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance stranded themselves in the ice of the Antarctic for 16 months, they could have used some help. But in 1915, global explorers had to handle emergencies on their own. Thankfully, that's no longer true.

If you're an executive or an ordinary tourist traveling in the emerging markets of Asia, you're unlikely to get trapped between ice floes. But you may face graver dangers than spilling noodles on your lap. The hazards can range from everyday hassles like losing your luggage or suffering an injury in a car accident to becoming seriously ill while you're away from home.

When that happens, where should you turn? Try Singapore-based SOS International (www.internationalsos.com), the leading global provider of evacuation and emergency medical services, with clinics and call centers all over the world. France-based Europ Assistance (www.worldwide-assistance.com) offers similar services but isn't as established in Asia. While your insurance policy may be with another company, chances are they call SOS or Europ Assistance when you call them. Every week, the SOS center in Beijing alone handles about 200 calls from needy travelers in China; three or four of those callers will require evacuation. "There's nothing worse than being in a serious medical situation and not being able to understand what's going on around you," says Myles Druckman, SOS regional medical director for north Asia. "I've had a woman call in and say, 'We've been in a car accident and my husband has been admitted to the local hospital, so what do we do?'"

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Once he has a grip on the patient's condition, Druckman consults an SOS database and sees if the hospital is up to the task. More likely than not, it isn't. "We have a network of over 100 hospitals in China that a team has assessed and approved, so we'll figure out which one is the closest and able to deal with the client's problem." The trouble with China and other parts of Asia is that while they are home to some of the best doctors in the world, they also have some of the worst. "The difficulty is that if you are a lay person, you just don't know whether you're going to get access to the best care in the middle of the night," says Druckman.

SOS staffers can usually make a preliminary diagnosis over the phone and react from there. If the patient is alone and unconscious, a card in his wallet instructs local medical personnel on whom to call. In China, if the situation is truly dire--a heart attack, say, or a critical injury--SOS calls in the People's Liberation Army: the firm has an arrangement to charter military aircraft for emergency evacuations with the company's doctors on board. In less urgent evacuation scenarios, patients will be accompanied by a doctor or a nurse on a commercial flight to better care. SOS also provides clients with medical advice before visiting a country, such as updates on what types of vaccinations are necessary. And the firm helps out with more mundane tasks, such as refilling prescriptions and replacing lost eyeglasses.

The global nature of business travel generates the need for companies like SOS that have around-the-clock call centers all over the world. According to an American Express survey, international business travel will grow 29% this year, spreading even more people around the globe. And it isn't just the briefcase brigade who need help. So do adventure travelers, who go deep into the wilderness to take part in risky activities like whitewater rafting.

Much has changed since Shackleton and his men got frozen in the ice. They survived, but only after an epic brush with death. Today they could have made one call and been home in time for dinner.

Illustration for TIME by Izhar Cohen

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