International SOS outlines Olympic health risks

With many of the world’s largest organisations sending thousands of employees and corporate guests to this year’s Summer Games in Beijing, attention is turning quickly to the pressing health and safety challenges facing Western visitors. International SOS, a leading global provider of integrated medical and security services, has compiled the views of Fortune 500 and FTSE 350 clients and its own 20 years’ experience in China, to produce the most detailed picture to date of these concerns and set out possible ways to manage risk.

With the Games organisers expecting 40,000 reporters, 100,000 volunteers and three million tourists, all spread across 37 competition venues and seven cities, the study reveals there are a myriad of challenges associated with the sheer volume of people.


Frank Doreleijers, regional manager for International SOS in China, commented: “Businesses are asking themselves how they would handle an employee or a corporate guest being injured in a traffic accident in the city, experiencing chest pains during a trip to the Great Wall, or losing their wallet at the stadium. There are endless possible scenarios, requiring a near-instant response.



“On the security side, language and cultural differences have emerged as a key concern and present an immediate problem in any kind of potential crisis. Also, with the various sporting venues spread across seven cities, there is an awareness that managing the safety of a party of corporate guests, for example, will be quite a major exercise.”


Cultural and practical pitfalls also apply to the specific medical challenges that visitors to China may face.


“When we talk to businesses about access to hospitals, many automatically assume a Western style of healthcare”, said Dr Ahmed Fahmy, medical director in China with International SOS. “But hospitals are run very differently and may strike Western visitors as crowded and noisy. Not all Western branded medicines are available in China. Even something as routine as a blood transfusion may be complicated by shortages of appropriate blood groups.  Again, the language barrier can be a problem in hospitals and, if an ambulance is required, limited access to urban hubs and remote areas can result in increased response times.”


These worries over provision are moving up the HR agenda because of the heightened medical risk facing visitors.


“Although China is working on an ambitious plan to improve air quality in time for the Games, there is still justified concern over possible asthma, sore throats and allergic reactions among susceptible individuals. August is also the hottest time of the year, raising the possibility of heat stress and heat stroke, in addition to those food and water-borne diseases which thrive in summer.”


International SOS has two decades experience of working in China, during which it has built up an extensive network of clinics and approved medical professionals throughout the country. Having also provided medical and security support during the Sydney games in 2000 and Athens in 2004, International SOS is currently working with many of its clients to identify and manage the specific risks facing travellers under their care in Beijing.


Information, communication and planning are key to this process, as Dr Fahmy explained: “A comprehensive briefing for guests, covering cultural, social and medical aspects, must be a basic first step. There must be clearly set out lines of communication in the event of a crisis and, perhaps most importantly, resources on the ground to respond in a timely and appropriate manner.”


Frank Doreleijers concluded: “While there are risks associated with any event on this scale, the 2008 Summer Games promises to be among the most spectacular and memorable ever staged. Having taken steps to ensure appropriate assistance is available when and where they need it, international visitors can feel free to enjoy everything China has to offer.”