Medicine on the run

| October 05, 2005

Drivers might be far from home when injury or illness strikes, but support is usually nearby.

When you’re on the road 80 percent of your life, there’s a good chance a medical issue will come up while you’re away from home.

And because you’re a trucker, you might face additional medical issues.

“Truckers have this macho attitude,” says Marlene Fedin, Travel Health writer and consultant and author of www.wellnessconcierge.com. “A lot of them don’t do a lot to stay healthy.”

With most health issues, prevention is the best cure.

“If they would just walk 25 minutes a day,” says Dr. Kenn Seals of Dr. Izzy’s Chiro-Stop at the Sapp Brothers Truck Stop in Salt Lake City, Utah. “The human body is designed to help the heart pump the blood through movement,” he says. “Sitting still takes all that away.” This leads to a host of other problems, from what Seals calls “numbness or tingling in the fingers from sitting for 11 hours” to deep vein thrombosis, in which blood pools in the veins and often clots.

For some drivers, just brushing teeth daily would be a breakthrough, and their teeth suffer for it. “Most drivers know very little about dental hygiene,” says Angie Breeze, office manager at Over-the Road Dental, also at the SLC Sapp Brothers Truck Stop. “Their teeth are in very poor condition.”

But what do you do about medical care once the damage is done: after the neglected tooth gets infected and starts to throb, after the flabby muscle gets torn, or worse? Fortunately for drivers, quality medical help is usually available and nearby, and there’s always 911, QUALCOMM and the CB. If your medical problem is immediately life threatening, communication is probably the first step to saving your life.

“The driver can send a canned medical assistance macro to his service team leader,” says Don Osterberg, Schneider National’s vice president of safety and driver training. “The STL can then contact the occupational health nurses. They have in their databases the locations of the nearest medical assistance.”

For drivers with most large carriers, that option is available 24/7. Osterberg says Schneider’s occupational health nurses work every day. “At night we have a third-party medical assistance provider, and their nurses can provide essentially the same services as our OH staff.”

Good trucking companies care about the health and welfare of their drivers, and for safety’s sake they don’t want sick or injured drivers behind the wheel. “We empower our drivers to pull over, because we don’t want them to drive if they’re injured, sick or having an issue,” Osterberg says.

One of the first and biggest obstacles to medical treatment is getting drivers to admit they need medical attention in the first place. “It’s more typical with men than with women,” Fedin says. “They get warning signals and they ignore them.” Warning signals can be anything from a persistent stomach ache to chest pains. “They might be worried about losing their jobs,” Fedin says. “But they could lose their lives.”

The irony is that getting medical care on the road is relatively simple and easy because, for one thing, most trucking companies provide drivers with very good coverage that’s designed to meet drivers’ travel health needs.

“It does vary from plan to plan,” says Rachel Widmer, human resources representative at Koch Trucking in Minneapolis. “There can be a ton of differences between health plans. But as long as it’s an emergency situation you can go to any health care facility and it will be considered within our coverage network.” Widmer says most other coverage plans are the same way.

Some states have laws requiring hospital emergency rooms to render care in a crisis, coverage or none. But it’s good to know the bills will be covered.

“Find out how your coverage defines an emergency situation,” Widmer says. “It’s absolutely necessary to know what’s covered and what’s not.” She says if you can’t find out on your own, ask. “Drivers should ask for a benefits summary during orientation or something where they can see an outline of the benefits plan.”

Fedin agrees that it’s crucial for drivers to learn about their health care coverage. “I would say that truck drivers should become extremely familiar with their coverage because with insurance there can be a lot of fine print,” she says.

Knowing your insurance coverage inside and out won’t prevent injuries. When they happen, knowing where to get treatment is more important. Dedicated drivers who run the same routes might know where the nearest hospital or clinic is. For over-the road drivers, finding medical treatment is not much more difficult.

For example, health care professionals are opening up shop in more truckstops. “We’re seeing more and more truckstops that are starting to have some form of medical care at their locations,” says Mindy Long, spokeswoman for the National Association of Truck Stop Operators. “We’re also getting more calls from drivers looking for lists of places.”

Some truckstop-based health care is already in place and has been for years. “If it’s a terminal location, then we try and have medical help there,” says Ron Brown, manager of SLC Sapp Brothers. “We have it at Council Bluff, Denver and Salt Lake City, and we’re looking at Indianapolis and some other locations.”

The idea is to make it as easy as possible for drivers to get medical treatment. This means plenty of big-rig parking, no appointment necessary, speedy care, accepting all insurance and in some cases even filing claims for the drivers.

“We take all insurance, and we do all the billing to the insurance company for the drivers,” says Breeze of Over-the-Road Dental. “All they’re required to pay is the co-payment, and we collect the balance from the insurance company for them.” She says OTR Dental’s owner, Dr. Scott Wall, used to be a trucker. “He knew that drivers are far from home and never have time for dental care, and the drivers usually have very good benefits.”

OTR Dental’s service is structured with the driver in mind. “They don’t have time for crowns, bridges and root canals,” Breeze says. “Most of the time they’re here to take care of a toothache and get back on the road.” She says drivers often choose an extraction rather than other sore-tooth treatments that cost a lot more and take a lot longer.

Business is good at OTR Dental, and now three dentists are on staff.

Dr. Seals provides chiropractic treatment, DOT physicals and drug tests. “The key thing is these guys have to be able to drive a full-sized rig in and park it: someplace they can get to without having to bobtail,” Seals says. He says a basic chiropractic adjustment takes “20 or 25 minutes” and costs $45.

“We see pretty much neck, shoulder and back problems,” he says, adding that sore left shoulders and upper backs are “chronic” among drivers. Some need further medical attention “like a strep throat,” Seals says. “For that we have a relationship with a hospital five blocks away.” He says drivers can come in for a blood pressure check or a quick, 10-minute massage free of charge.

“Drivers get disrespected everywhere,” Seals says. “Somebody has to respect them, and I’ve yet to find anybody who’s disappointed in the services we provide.”

His DOT physicals are $65 and include a laminated medical card “because it’s going to get sat on a million times,” he says. A random DOT drug test is $45. “That’s usually with a 24-hour turnaround,” he says.

Seals, of course, takes walk-ins. “We’re pretty much here to take care of the drivers,” he says. “They can stop in any time.”

If truckstop-based medical care is not available, hospital emergency rooms or walk-in clinics are often nearby and open seven days with long hours. For example, Instacare, a part of Intermountain Health Care in Salt Lake City, has 174 facilities in Utah, some in hospitals, some stand-alone clinics. Each has “a professional staff of licensed physicians and registered nurses that can handle minor emergencies, from sore throats and illnesses to cuts or broken bones needing x-rays.” Also, according to its website, Instacare will not deny treatment based on a patient’s “inability to pay.”

All states have hospitals with emergency rooms and usually more than one health care organization with walk-in clinics. Ask for locations at the fuel desk, on the CB or most anywhere; local law enforcement and even residents usually know where the nearest medical facility is. Also, an Internet search for walk-in health care will yield hundreds of hits. One website, www.tripprep.com, has a state-by-state list of health care facilities that specialize in providing care for travelers.

Major medical care requiring hospitalization hundreds of miles from home can bring up another question: how to get home? Fedin says if your condition is such that you require special care during transport, the ride can cost tens of thousands of dollars, “and it’s not covered by insurance.”

She recommends medical evacuation insurance, which she says costs about $200 a year. “If you have a really serious problem and you need to get back home for continued care, it’s extraordinarily expensive,” she says. With MEI “they can fly you from where you are to where you can get help,” and cost will not be an issue.

As a truck driver, you can plan on needing medical assistance while far from home. Take the right precautions. “With some healthcare plans you have to get permission to get emergency medical care,” on a case-by-case basis, Fedin says.

She also recommends carrying information that might be necessary. “Most people don’t know their blood type,” she says. “If they can find that and other information on a slip of paper in your wallet, it might save your life.”


First Aid Kit
Minor injuries and ailments such as small cuts, mild indigestion and headaches can be treated with basic first aid so long as the necessary tools are available. The following items are easy to find and together compose an adequate first aid kit.

  • Adhesive bandages

  • Elastic cloth wraps
  • First aid antibacterial cream
  • Waterless antibacterial hand sanitizer
  • Aspirin or non-aspirin pain reliever
  • Anti-diarrhea medication
  • Antacid tablets
  • Antihistamine
  • Zipper-top plastic bags or ice bag
  • Dental adhesive to temporarily replace loose fillings
  • Prescription medications
  • Thermometer
  • Moleskin for blisters
  • Extra pair of prescription glasses or contacts
  • Antifungal ointment
  • Scissors
  • Q-tips

Carriers have different policies about rendering first aid to another person. “We train our drivers in emergency procedures at an accident scene,” says Don Osterberg, Schneider National’s vice president of safety and driver training. “We don’t want them to be bystanders.”

Other carriers instruct their drivers to call 911 and keep on going. This might come down to a personal decision. But if you administer first aid, make sure you know the procedures so you don’t cause further injury or hinder future treatment.

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