Until now, we have mostly written about our family’s experiences with health care in Panama.
Those experiences have been highly positive – both in care and in great cost savings.
Health care information on our site:
However, a recent call from a family friend prompted me to look more closely at health care in Panama.
This friend, let’s call him Bill, needs treatment for a life threatening condition. He has heavy metal poisoning due to exposure over the course of his career.
Tragically, the procedure that he requires is not yet approved in the US. The closest procedure available in the US would cost him between $20,000 to $30,000.
And his insurance doesn’t cover it.
Mexico vs Panama
So Bill wants to get treatment outside of the USA.
Currently, Bill is trying to decide between Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Panama for a, hopefully, life saving procedure. As you can imagine, Bill is extremely interested in comparing service, cost, and care in Panama with that in Mexico.
Bill’s plight prompted me to do some more research into health care in Panama. I am sharing my findings with you.
Healthcare in Panama
Not surprisingly, like many other places, the healthcare business is growing rapidly in Panama.
As we all read every day, and experience personally, we U.S. baby boomers are finally arriving at retirement age. As you would expect, the growth of the health care business is keeping pace and focusing more on health problems that happen as we age.
Lower Cost of Health Care in Panama
For most healthcare procedures, Panama is far less expensive than Mexico, or even neighboring Costa Rica.
In part, this is due to a lower wage scale for nurse care and lower cost for hospital stays.
If Bill were to get the same procedure done in Mexico (the one that costs $20-$30K in the US), it would likely to cost between $4,000 to $6000. At first glance, it appears that the same procedure, performed in Panama would be less than half of the cost in Mexico.
Whats & Whys of Medical Tourism in Panama
One healthcare publication states that,
‘If a medical procedure costs more than $6000 in the US, then it is probably a good idea to investigate having it performed in another country.’
Panama ranks high on the list of destinations for medical toursim.
In Panama, the health care services that consistently rate highest on the list for quality, and cost savings, among expats surveyed were:
- Dental work
- Eye surgery
- Cosmetic surgery.
Not surprisingly, these are all services that are not usually covered by health insurance in the US. Obviously, for the uninsured, the list of procedures that are advantageous to have done in Panama is much longer.
However, increasing number people traveling to Panama for major surgeries, orthopedic surgeries, joint replacements, and even transplants are helping to put Panama near the top of the list for overseas medical destinations.
(The common term these days for traveling to have health procedures done is “Medical Tourism”).
Superior Doctor/Patient Relationship in Panama
Aside from cost savings in Panama, many patients cited dramatically superior doctor/patient relations in Panama as why they choose to get health care here.
Frequently in the US patients are attended primarily by nurses or doctors’ assistants, who handle all of the paperwork, blood work, routine measurements, injections, etc. The doctor himself/herself comes in for a brief examination that is sometimes as short as 60 seconds and rarely as long as 10 minutes.
In Panama, one frequently hears fellow ex-pats exclaim that their Panamanian doctor is the best they have ever had. They marvel that he or she spends between 30 minutes to 1 hour, one-on- one, getting to know them, and becoming familiar with their specific symptoms.
Amazingly, Doctors in Panama generally give their personal cell phone number to patients. They even take calls from patients at home, including weekends and evenings. In this area of personalized patient care, Panama has the US beat hands down.
Downside of Health Care In Panama
On the negative side, areas of patient care in Panama that are most frequently criticized are:
- Emergency service
- Patient intake
- Records keeping and general paperwork management
- Long waits at public hospital emergency rooms
However, most western expats/foreigners can afford care at a private hospital emergency room, where service is much faster.
Seattle vs Panama as Health Care Destination
As a gross comparison, Seattle, where we live part of the year, is another very popular location for both international and domestic medical tourism.
Like Boston, and some other big cities, Seattle has become a powerhouse in the world of bio-tech and cancer research as well as clinical treatment. As such, it is not uncommon to run into people, who are in Seattle to be treated at prestigious cancer care centers as: Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Clinic, The University of Washington Hospital, or others.
Simply the cost of renting in Seattle, a super- expensive rental market, in addition to the housing costs back home, is a significant cost. Add to that the high medical costs of undergoing a bone marrow/ stem cell transplant, radiation, or chemo therapy, and then recovery and the bill could easily run into the 100s of thousands of dollars.
Obviously, such medical tourism is something that only the very privileged or those with amazing insurance can afford.
If you are faced with the reality of one’s own very serious and costly health condition, Panama looks like a viable alternative to care in the US.
We advise that you take your time, do thorough research of costs, services provided, and most importantly, do a “gut check” of your own comfort zone, to see if Panama might be a good fit for your health care needs.