The excitement is builds. You’ve just booked a trip abroad and are busy planning all the fabulous activities. Now begins the exhaustive search for extraordinary sights, the best adventures, and the yummiest foods. But, are you forgetting something?
Did you ever consider you could get sick when you travel? The thought actually hurts. And while nobody wants to imagine the worst, often an illness or an injury can ruin a vacation.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that over 40% of people who travel for two weeks or more become ill. To make things worse, studies show that 60% of people who should get healthcare prior to travel don’t.
How do you find out if you need something extra for your trip?
Call your doctor and wait hours for a callback?
Search the Internet? Over 70% of people look online to find healthcare information. But it takes time, and you have to know which sites to trust. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and simply give up on the process.
And besides, you’re busy.
Thankfully, you’ve got options. One of them is the power of mobile health (mHealth) and phone apps. Let’s take a closer look.
Is there a doctor in your pocket?
There are three mobile phone apps from reputable sources that I recommend. Each can help you figure out whether you need travel vaccines, medications, or to take special precautions. It’s a good idea to check before you travel; after all you don’t want to miss a single minute of your trip due to illness.
TravWell is created by the CDC, MyTravelHealth is created by travel health specialists at the Mayo Clinic, and Sitata is created by a private developer who used to work for the Canadian Global Health Network.
They offer advice about how to stay healthy when you travel. TravWell and Sitata are free whereas MyTravelHealth costs $3. All three are available on the iOS platform, but only TravWell and Sitata are available on the android platform. They’re all updated regularly and offer advice for individual travelers.
To use them you need to ‘create a trip’ which is as simple as answering a few questions such as destination(s), dates, and activities planned.
I’m planning a lot of international travel this year so it seemed only natural to take these apps out for a spin. After all, I’m a mobile health (mHealth) enthusiast and travel medicine doctor.
I compared the advice given by the apps to each other and to the gold standard: the CDC travel website. These apps all follow the CDC guidelines. For those outside of the USA there is not an option to switch to the Australian, National Health, Canadian or WHO guidelines.
Summary of Mobile Apps for International Travel Health
|Travel App:||Trav Well||Sitata||My Travel Health|
|Ease of Use||Simple||Simple||Moderate|
|Follow CDC Guidelines||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Recommend routine vaccines||Yes, from CDC||No||Yes, from CDC|
|Recommend travel vaccines||Easy to understand||Easy to understand||Easy to understand stratified: all, most or some travelers|
Refer to STEP.gov
|Yes, including local emergency contact info||Yes, but very hard to read|
|Medications needed||Malaria and diarrhea by country; no altitude sickness||Malaria by country. No diarrhea or altitude sickness||No. Assumes you'll get this from your doctor.|
|Health education||No||Some diseases explained||Most travel related problems covered.|
|Help when you are sick||No||Help to find local doctor; incomplete network||Self-help advice. Works without Wifi.|
|Advice specific to planned activities||No||No||No|
|Chronic diseases addressed||No||No||Overview only|
|Packing list||Yes, including mini health kit. Not country specific||No||Yes, but not country specific|
|Place to store travel documents||Yes, stored on phone not on web||No||Yes, stored on phone not on web|
How easy are they to use?
Immediately upon opening all the apps you need to acknowledge that the advice is not a substitute for medical care nor is it guaranteed to be accurate. Yep, the lawyers have been here. You’ll also notice that each one has been updated recently.
All three are relatively easy to use. You select your destination and dates from the menu and voilà your trip is born! The screens load fast on either Wifi or cellular service, which is handy if you’re noodling around while out.
TravWell is your ‘Steady Eddie’.
Created by the CDC, it provides just enough information to help you figure out if you need to see your doctor. It’s an app designed to save you time. The interface is intuitive and quickly guides you through CDC recommended vaccines and medicines.
Confusingly though, the medication for Malaria is covered in the vaccine section, whereas antibiotics and altitude medications are listed in the packing list area.
In addition to health recommendations it has a packing list, a to-do list and even a place to store documents. The packing list is a bit too comprehensive; it’s one-size fits all (none). The To-do list organizes a pre-travel list of activities to complete before you travel such as prepare travel documents, get travel health insurance and fill prescriptions.
Sitata is the beauty queen of the three.
Elegant and intimate it gathers information about your planned destination and activities. Lush photos generate excitement for your adventure. When I enter ‘canoeing’ in Costa Rica, my photo becomes a stack of canoes at the water’s edge at sunrise. Sigh!
But while the app may give you gorgeous custom photos, but the recommendations are one-size fits all. Here they miss an opportunity to offer tailored advice based upon activities entered.
Immediately after entering the details of your trip, Sitata loads travel alerts, security and disease outbreaks with maps for your trip. They also send a summary to the email of your choice. It’s handy to know what’s is going on where. – for example, if Avian flu has broken out in China, but not all of China, it gives you a map of the exact location(s) of the outbreak and helps you know if you’ll I’ll be near the problem. The same goes for smog alerts. But no real advice is offered once the alert is identified, it’s up to you to decide if this is a health risk.
MyTravelHealth appears a bit dowdy.
In an effort to be comprehensive, it misses the mark. Most of the information is simply a link to a CDC or Mayo Clinic website. Often that means extensive scrolling through to find relevant information, which. This ignores the power of mobile apps to provide customized information in an engaging format.
MyTravelhealth is highly detailed, offering a library of recommendations for all sorts of travel related problems. And it’s is the only app to stratify their recommendations into advice for all travelers, most travelers, and some travelers. Within each section they clearly explain why they make recommendations for each group. The content is comprehensive and covers many aspects of traveling from blood clots to jet lag.
This app was designed to be a companion while traveling. It even offers simple first aid advice that works even if you don’t have cell or wi-fi service.
Do I need vaccines for travel to a particular country?
All three offer vaccine recommendations which correlate with the CDC website.
Each recommendation is given with an explanation about why you need the vaccine so that you can make an informed decision.
TravWell and MyTravelHealth recommend routine vaccines in addition to travel immunizations. This is important because as they say, “common things happen commonly”; you are more likely to need protection from common diseases than exotic germs. Frankly, the lack of these recommendations is a shortcoming of Sitata.
All source their information from the CDC recommendations, using the language from the CDC website. Sitata and MyTravelHealth offer links to more information about a particular disease so that you can learn and be an educated traveler.
Being able to get help fast is important in an emergency situation. Only Sitata gives you the local police/fire/ambulance codes — hint it’s not 911 all over the world.
They also provide a succinct description of how trouble might find a traveler and how to avoid it (pickpockets, luggage theft, violent crime areas) They’re building out a network of doctors and hospitals to recommend if you become are sick while traveling.
MyTravelHealth gives you a list of all the CDC travel alerts, in very small text, most of which don’t apply to your trip rendering this feature essentially useless.
TravWell does not offer safety and security information. Instead they advise US citizens to register with the state department STEP program which will send relevant security information to you via email.
Frequent travelers love the convenience of using their phone to manage their plane tickets. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a place to store a copy of your passport, vaccine records, and medical papers that is accepted by border guards and passport control?
Alas this is not the case. Even though TravWell and MyTravelHealth offer a place to store a copy of important documents on your phone you still need paper copies of these items to cross borders.
Other common travel health problems?
Avoiding common travel maladies keeps most travelers feeling good when they travel. But how?
Curiously, only MyTravelHealth discusses jet lag. Yet you talk to any international traveler and the first thing they mention is how debilitating jet lag can be. As with most things on the app it connects you with a web page with helpful tips.
Travelers’ diarrhea has ruined more trips, yet only MyTravelHealth offers information about how to prevent and treat it.
TravWell mentions antibiotics in passing in their packing list. This may be because the CDC has a separate app called Can I Eat This? which addresses this issue. However the lack of antibiotic recommendation is a shortcoming of both TravWell and Sitata.
Often one of the best ways to stay healthy is to wear effective insect repellents when you travel. TravWell and MyTravelHealth have detailed instructions about which repellents work and how to apply them properly. Preventing insect bites means preventing the diseases they carry. I can’t emphasize this point enough.
None of the apps indicate which conditions at your destination may cause a flare of your underlying disease. Clearly, if you have asthma, diabetes, heart problems, or a weakened immune system, etc. you’ll want to discuss your travel plans with your healthcare provider long before you travel.
All three apps are excellent places to get preliminary information about staying healthy when traveling abroad. None replaces a visit to your doctor or travel medicine specialist. It’s often very hard to figure out exactly what about your travel puts you at risk of getting sick and how you can prevent it.
TravWell’s all-in-one vaccine advice from the CDC is easy to use and authoritative. It offers a place to temporarily store your documents while traveling and comprehensive packing and checklists. You’re left on your own to find providers for their recommendations and they don’t offer advice or assistance beyond pre-travel.
Sitata’s beautiful photos will get you excited to go on your trip. You’ll have a clear understanding of travel vaccines recommended and safety precautions. It’s missing some key advice such as routine vaccines, traveler’s diarrhea and insect bite precautions, topics I am sure the developers can add. The attention to helping the ill traveler locate medical care nearby is novel. However, their network is not robust enough yet to recommend that feature. Keep an eye on it as they build it out.
MyTravelHealth is comprehensive and covers the most travel health related topics. It was designed as a take-along companion to use after a travel medicine clinic visit. However by connecting to web pages, often too difficult to read in an app, it misses the mark. People who use apps want specific information, tailored to their specific concerns, in a easy-to-read format. The information is accurate, but the app interface is flawed. For $3 I expected more.
Lovely as the thought might be, these apps are not robust enough to replace getting advice from your healthcare provider or local travel health clinic.
The apps don’t t factor in the activities or duration of traveler. This is problematic as risk of becoming ill is directly related to both duration of travel and planned activities. Additionally, none factored in the effect of traveling with a chronic illness such as asthma or diabetes. These apps are best used as reminders that you do need to see your healthcare prior to travel to get advice specific to you.
Please note:- the opinions are my own. I have no financial relationships with any of these products. I’m a mobile health enthusiast and have expertise in travel health.