After safety and cost of living, healthcare in Panama is the next significant question asked by prospective expats. This article investigates the overall level of healthcare available in Panama, the major medical facilities in the country as well as the availability of health insurance.
Just to be clear, this post covers healthcare and its availability, not the cost thereof. The cost indicators are covered in another post where we discuss the cost of living in Panama.
Finding quantitative measures to define the quality of healthcare in Panama proved more difficult than I imagined. Some of the more comprehensive studies and comparisons (for example from the World Health Organisation) are simply too old for our use. The information following below should, however, enable you to form a broad opinion.
Facts and figures – a quick comparison
We can use a number of indicators to form an idea about the level of healthcare in Panama. The infographic below shows three key indicators, with comparisons to the USA and Colombia:
Although Panama has six universities offering medical programs, one of which with graduate entry only, many doctors have attended medical school in the USA.
An interesting part of healthcare in Panama is that only Panama citizens can practice as physicians.
Overview of major facilities
Panama is a small country and wherever you choose to live, you would be less than two hours away from good medical facilities. For example, Colón Island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, one of the farthest inhabited areas from the capital, is just one hour flight time away from Panama City.
Major hospitals in Panama City
Clinica Hospital San Fernando. Located on the busy arterial Via España, the hospital has created a facility to assist expats who cannot speak Spanish.
Hospital Punta Pacifica. The newest of the major hospitals and the only hospital in Latin America and the Caribbean affiliated with the world-class Johns Hopkins International. It is located on Boulevard Pacifica.
Centro Medico Paitilla. Boasting the best oncology unit in Panama, the hospital is located just off Avenue Balboa.
Hospital Nacional. The hospital has been in operation since 1973. Today it is well affiliated with US medical facilities as well as a US management company. Located on Avenida Justo Arosemena, across the Santo Tomás metro station.
Major hospital outside Panama City
Situated in the city of David, Hospital Chiriqui opened its doors in 1988 and since then, has established a reputation for quality healthcare services.
There are many smaller or specialised hospitals and clinics in Panama City. Other noteworthy (expat noteworthy that is) cities and towns with small hospitals, satellite facilities and/or clinics include Coronado, Chitre, Las Tablas, Pedasí, Santiago, Boquete and Bocas.
Medical procedures available in Panama are not limited to general ails and illnesses, or reconstructive surgery. The country has firmly established itself as a medical tourist destination, with specific reference to cosmetic surgery and related treatments, including plastic-, orthopaedic- and obesity surgery.
As far as pharmacies go, there are no issues with availability; hospitals and many supermarkets have pharmacies. The two largest pharmacy groups are Arrocha and Metro, while the Rey supermarket group have in-house pharmacies as well as 24-hour service.
The availability of medicine, including prescription drugs, is relatively good. Many drugs that would only be available on prescription in other countries are available over the counter in Panama.
Having said that, do keep in mind that you might not find the exact brand name or registered name of the medicine you are looking for, so if it’s an issue for you, try to find its generic substitute before coming to Panama.
As far as healthcare in Panama goes, the only real limitation faced by some expats would be language. If you don’t speak Spanish, you might want to consider the service of a translator. However, many expats are surprised by the level of English spoken by doctors, especially those that have trained in the USA.
Availability of insurance
Although the government provides basic health services to citizens and permanent residents, at public hospitals and clinics, expats generally prefer to buy private health insurance. And it is readily available. Health insurance can be divided into two categories, namely local insurance and international insurance.
Local health insurance
All local insurance policies require a medical exam that will cost between $150 and $250. These insurance plans have a deductible amount; some are fixed while others allow you to choose an amount up-front. All plans have a Stop-Loss (out of pocket maximum) clause.
Readers should be aware that some of the local plans could exclude pre-existing conditions or dictate a certain wait period for specific conditions. Remember to ask about these when you speak to a broker.
International health insurance
Only a few companies require a full medical exam while all require at least a PSA test for male applicants over the age of 50, which will cost about $25. All plans have deductible amount options while only Blue Cross/Blue Shield offers a co-insurance option. All plans have a Stop-Loss (out of pocket maximum) clause.
What expats say
You can find expat opinions and answers on various Facebook groups and expat forums, which are the best sources of the unedited version. Here is your shortcut to “Expats in Panama” after I entered “healthcare” in the search function.
From what I have read, the consensus opinion is that both the availability and quality of healthcare in Panama is good.
If any blog, broker or person sells Panama’s healthcare as world class, it might be stretching the truth just a bit. I think there are many pockets of excellence, with loads of anecdotal evidence to support the notion. The four major hospitals can certainly boast very good care services, some even exceptional, but to tag the national healthcare system as “world-class” might be a little way off.
“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease” – Voltaire
I would love to have your thoughts about healthcare and your concerns or experiences as an expat.
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