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Panama Health Care – Plan for the Unexpected

It may come as a surprise that Panama health care is as good as in the U.S. and at a much lower cost. However, there are always the unexpected events that can catch even the most seasoned expats unawares.

While it is impossible to guard against the unforeseen, a little forward planning can go a long way towards dealing with unplanned medical issues. Learning about medical options in Panama is a great way to prepare for those unanticipated events that can arise and how best to deal with them.

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The Basics of Panama Health Care

Panama health care can be divided into two basic categories: public and private. There are distinct differences between the two systems that every expat should know.

The Public System

The public health system in Panama is run by two separate governmental entities. The Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud) establishes examination and health care programs for the poorest Panamanians. Additionally, the Ministry also has the responsibility for carrying out hygiene inspections, building new clinics and hospitals, and overseeing general health care training.

The other governmental body, the Social Security System (Caja de Seguros Social), operates the country’s hospitals and clinics.  Regardless of income, both foreigner and national can receive free health care, emergency medical treatment, and maternity care.

The Private System

Private medical care in Panama is on par with modern facilities in the U.S. These private institutions have modern equipment, bilingual staffs, and are often affiliated with U.S. medical schools. The Punta Pacifica Hospital, one of the top state-of-the-art centers in Latin America, is affiliated with Johns Hopkins University. Other examples of U.S.-affiliated operations are the San Fernando (Tulane) and Centro Medico Patilla (Cleveland Clinic).

Location, Location, Location

Access to medical care, regardless of whether it is public or private, is often determined by one’s location. There is a major difference between urban and rural facilities – both in terms of access and in the level of specialty care.

Rural clinics and hospitals can handle basic health issues (although the wait times can be lengthy). For more complex or difficult issues, a trip to David or Panama City may be required to find the specialists that may be needed.

Finding a private hospital or facility in a rural area can be challenging at best. Once again, the greater majority of private medical providers are located near the major urban centers.

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Pros and Cons of Panama Health Care

Health care in Panama has its positives and negatives. Being aware of potential benefits and drawbacks can help you plan ahead for medical situations that may arise.

Cost of Care Is Cheaper Than Back Home

Generally speaking, the cost of medical care in Panama is cheaper than comparable services offered in the U.S. That being said, it is still important to know that the private system can still be costly; having medical insurance is the best way to ensure fast and reliable service.

Another major difference is that, while credit cards are usually accepted for hospital service, doctors fees are expected to be paid immediately – regardless of whether or not the care involves an emergency. Just as in the States, the charge for the hospital or clinic does not include the fees of the medical practitioner in attendance.

Many Prescription Drugs Can Be Purchased Without a Prescription.

One major pluses of Panama health care is the fact that many medications that would require a prescription in the U.S. can actually be purchased over the counter. Like its neighbor Costa Rica, pharmacies (called farmacias) carry most of the regular medications that expats (and locals) would take and at a lesser cost than purchasing the same drug back home.

The one major exception is for pain medications that would require physician’s approval (just like in the U.S.).  A written prescription from a local doctor will be required to obtain these medicines.

Not All Health Care Options Are Equal

As mentioned above, there is a significant difference in the level of care found in local clinics and the major medical facilities of Panama City and David.  The local clinics often have much longer waiting times, fewer available doctors, and limited treatment options.  Additionally, there may be fewer English speakers at the smaller locations which could create a language barrier for those who are not comfortable with Spanish.

panama health care

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Health Insurance Is Good Preventative Medicine

Having health insurance in Panama is one of the best ways of preparing for unexpected medical issues. As the number of foreigners choosing Panama has increased, the health insurance options have also become more sophisticated.

Insurance can be purchased individually or through an employer (and, yes, expats can work in Panama). The price for general health policies will be affected by age, pre-existing conditions, etc. The good news is that a basic Blue Cross type policy, for a healthy individual, may be less than $100 per month.  In some cases, much less.

The advantage of having insurance is being able to have low co-pays, even for specialists, and lower deductibles. While insurance is not mandatory, not having to worry about paying the full amount for services (especially for emergencies) at the time of treatment is certainly a valuable consideration.

A Panama Health Care Insurance Example

Recently, an expat mother had to take her 7 year old to the emergency room for a ½ inch cut close to the eye. A general surgeon was called and stitched up the wound at a private hospital. Total cost: $400.

This parent had insurance and the result was that the entire amount was 100% covered. Rather than having to be concerned with coming up with a large amount of cash (even though the cost was far less than one would expect in the States), she was able to focus her attention on her child. Given the affordable cost of health insurance, the peace of mind and convenience was certainly priceless.

Planning Ahead Makes Using Panama Health Care Easier

Understanding the basics of Panama health care, the positives and negatives, and how insurance works can make being prepared for the unexpected health events much less complicated. It is better to have the appropriate provisions in order, even if you never need to use them, than to find yourself in need of medical care with no plan in place. The old saying is true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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