Finding good medical care in a new country is an area of concern for many potential expats. Fortunately, thanks to the quality Panama health care system, those considering this tropical destination won’t need to lose any sleep over that issue.
With state-of-the-art facilities–including one partnered with the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital–and English-speaking, U.S.-trained doctors, it’s no wonder many expats claim the health care in Panama is one of the biggest perks of living here.
However, like anything else, the Panama health care system is only as good as you make it. So, here are a few tips from seasoned expats on how to really get the most from the health care in Panama.
1. Evaluate your need for health insurance.
There are a number of options for those seeking health insurance in Panama. They’re also pleasantly more affordable than the plans available to most North Americans, Obamacare notwithstanding.
Within Panama, there are HMO plans that reimburse services from in-network providers. There are also international plans that will cover you outside the country’s borders.
A few U.S. plans are even accepted in Panama, but that’s something you need to carefully look into BEFORE you find yourself needing treatment. Also know that Medicare does NOT cover medical costs outside the U.S. (including repatriation of remains), although Hospital Nacional in Panama City does provide services for active and retired members of the U.S. military (through TRICARE).
Many private hospitals have membership programs that offer sizeable discounts on medical procedures performed at that facility. Since Panama health care is already affordable (often ¼ to ½ the cost for the same services in the U.S.) some expats choose this option and then self-insure their medical expenses.
2. Understand the Panama health care system.
You may have heard that Panama health care is affordable or even “free,” and that’s true to an extent. However, that doesn’t mean that all facilities and providers are created equal. Here’s an explanation of the three types of clinics you’ll find in Panama and what you can expect from each.
National Health Care Clinics – These clinics, run by the Ministry of Health, are easily recognizable by the signs bearing the word “salud” and a green and yellow Staff of Asclepius (the rod entwined with a serpent, an icon of the field of medicine).
While they’re designed to treat Panama’s poorest citizens, often in remote areas, they provide care to anyone. Charges are as low as 50 cents for a doctor visit, but the quality of care is often equally low and inefficient.
Social Security Clinics – Most of Panama’s working class pays into the country’s social security system, or Caja de Seguro Social (CSS). As such, they have access to health services, emergency care, and maternity care at public clinics.
While these facilities are often plagued by understaffing, and overcrowding, there are also many that provide excellent care and specialized attention. Your best bet is to learn what’s available in your area so you’ll be prepared with the knowledge of where to go when the need for medical treatment arises.
Private Hospitals and Clinics – While Panama’s private hospitals are very modern and well-equipped, they’re also few and far between, with most being concentrated in the nation’s capital. However, new private clinics are popping up often, particularly in areas popular among foreigners.
Private facilities are also considerably more expensive than the public clinics (although still significantly less than a U.S. hospital). As a result, they’re generally only used by wealthy Panamanians and expats.
It’s also important to note that doctors generally expect payment up front, even for emergencies, and insurance plans usually only work on a reimbursement basis.
3. Look past the paint job.
Even the nicest Panama health care facilities don’t necessarily have the sleek, modern appearance you normally see in North American clinics. Paint may be peeling. Fabrics may be faded. The bathroom may not even have hot water, much like some Panamanian homes.
Don’t let those aesthetic differences affect how you feel about the quality of a clinic’s care. The fact that Panamanian hospitals aren’t competing to have the cushiest doctors’ offices or flat screen TVs in every room is one of the reasons they’re able to keep the cost of Panama health care low.
Instead of judging a book by its cover, ask for recommendations from other expats. Factors such as whether a facility treats your particular condition or whether the presiding doctor gives out her cell phone number easily are much more important than some tired-looking upholstery in the waiting room.
4. Take advantage of the low cost of Panama health care.
Because Panama health care is so affordable, yet also first-world quality, it’s becoming a hotspot for medical tourism. People from all over the globe come to Panama for procedures that are prohibitively expensive, including elective procedures like plastic surgery and cosmetic dentistry.
The increased interest in medical tourism has only helped improve the affordability and quality of Panama health care. As a result, many expats are also taking advantage of the low cost care.
Because so many people are traveling to the tropics to enjoy the affordable, quality Panama health care, there are even spas and resorts that cater to those recovering from medical procedures. So, while Panama has long been a great place to go for medical care, it’s becoming an increasingly fantastic place to recuperate.
Take a cue from the pros, and make sure you’re getting the most out of your Panama health care!