Panama is a haven for expats, and it’s not hard to see why. The weather is lovely (around 80 degrees, depending on the time of year and location). The beaches are gorgeous (the western province of Bocas del Toro has hidden caves and great snorkeling). The country’s food scene is on the cusp of exploding in popularity (with rumors of future Michelin stars gripping the foodie community). Add in the fact that Panama is affordable and eager for expat investment, and you have just about the perfect destination for retirement.
If you’re pondering an opportunity to relocate there once your working life winds down, here are some valuable things to know about the healthcare system in Panama to help you organize your future plans.
1. Understanding How Panama Ranks Worldwide
On the World Health Organization’s annual ranking of the world’s most efficient healthcare systems, Panama places 95th out of 191 countries. This puts it exactly in the middle, far ahead of countries like India, Bolivia, and Kenya, but well behind Colombia, Thailand, and Egypt. In general, expats consider healthcare in Panama to be excellent. In particular, doctors and nurses are consistently praised for their outstanding bedside manner and warm, compassionate care.
Nearly all doctors in Panama speak English, as do many nurses. Panama City in particular is home to superb healthcare facilities. In fact, the city is one of the regional leaders for medical tourism and dental work, cosmetic work, and joint replacement surgeries.
However, healthcare in rural areas is limited and smaller facilities lack funding. A majority of doctors live in Panama City (where they can stand to make more money, in part because of medical tourism opportunities), and it’s increasingly challenging to attract doctors to remote posts.
2. The Best Facilities Are In The City
Like many countries, Panama’s best medical facilities are concentrated in urban areas. Of note, Punta Pacifica, a private facility in Panama City, is considered the most technologically advanced hospital in Latin America and is affiliated with Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Alas, outside Panama City, service options drop dramatically. Regional hospitals are located in places like Los Santos, Colon, Chiriqui, and Veraguas, but in general, they’re not as comprehensive as those in Panama City. However, in more rural areas, MINSA-led services are often the only option available for healthcare.
3. Healthcare Comes From The Government And The Private Sector
Healthcare in Panama is provided by both the government and by private facilities.
On the government side of things, two organizations are responsible for healthcare services. The Social Security Fund (Caja de Seguro Social) acts as both a healthcare provider and a pension fund administrator. Its funding comes from both employers and employees and a bulk of the population is covered by its services.
Meanwhile, the Ministerio de Salud (MINSA) provides low-cost facilities for those not covered by the Social Security Fund, approximately 30 percent of the population.
Together, the Social Security Fund and MINSA run about 850 facilities in Panama, ranging from small doctor’s offices and mid-sized clinics to regional hospitals and the “Salud” clinics – community-based clinics in rural Panama.
On the private side, four major private hospitals provide healthcare to expats, tourists, and some local residents. Additionally, a private chain known as MiniMed operates seven walk-in-style clinics.
4. Both Private And Public Services Are Options For Expats
In some cases, expats living in Panama might have no choice but to use public facilities, especially if they’re located in remote areas. However, for non-emergency care, most expats have the option of using either system.
Public facilities are extremely inexpensive and, while basic in some cases, most are equipped to address routine healthcare concerns and more commonplace emergencies (though for serious situations, transfers to Panama City may be necessary). Depending on the size of the population served by the clinic or hospital, your wait for non-urgent appointments might range from same-day service to a wait of several weeks. Public hospitals offer modest accommodations for overnight patients, who can expect to share their room with one or perhaps several other patients.
Private services, by contrast, offer a far greater level of privacy (including solo hospital rooms) and overall comfort. Waitlists are much shorter and patients have access to a greater range of specialists. However, the costs are considerably higher than in public facilities.
5. Public Healthcare Is Affordable
Everyone wants to know how expensive medical care is in Panama. The short answer: it depends. The longer answer is that your costs depend on what facility you’re in and how complicated your case is. In some cases, your treatment might even be free.
Depending on the terms of your visa, you may be considered part of the Social Security program and, as such, could use public facilities for free. Any employee or business owner in Panama who pays into the Social Security Fund is covered by its services as well. It’s well worth looking into the terms by which you’re in the country!
If you’re not covered by the Social Security Fund, you can still use public services and pay as you go. As a rough guide, if you’re visiting public facilities, you can expect a visit with a specialist to cost about $50 (or possibly much less), while a non-urgent visit with a GP to discuss a routine matter might be as little as $10. Emergency room visits are about $30 to $100, while sophisticated diagnostic testing like MRIs cost about $500.
6. Private Options Vary In Price
If using the public system isn’t right for you, the private system is available. Prices here can vary widely. For something simple, like seeing a doctor for a sprained ankle, you might pay double that of a public facility. But if you need sophisticated care (like being airlifted to a major hospital for complex surgery), the bill could be astronomical.
If you don’t have private health insurance, don’t discount visiting a private facility on the assumption that it will be costly. You may just be able to receive excellent, comfortable care at what most expats consider to be a very low price. Panama law dictates that retirees are given a discount of 20 to 25 percent on healthcare services. Additionally, many private facilities offer discounts during special times of the year (like reducing the cost of mammograms in October during Breast Cancer Awareness month). However, it’s equally important you don’t dismiss the importance of insurance by telling yourself that just about everything in Panama is cheap. That’s not the case at all.
Many expats take a hybrid approach to their care. They carry insurance for serious emergencies and set a high deductible so their monthly premiums stay low. However, for more run-of-the-mill problems, they pop into their local clinic (either public or private) and just pay out of pocket. This way, they have financial peace of mind in the tragic event of needing an air ambulance or being diagnosed with a condition like cancer, but they’re keeping their overall costs affordable.
7. Know Before You Go: 9-1-1 Works Differently In Panama
Unfortunately, Panama does not have a nationwide emergency hotline like 9-1-1. The service is available in Panama City, but there are limitations. If you use it, you’ll have to speak in Spanish (which may be easier said than done if you are unwell or in shock) and give your precise address or directions to your location (which is definitely a challenge during an emergency, no matter what language you speak).
However, some cities offer emergency hotlines for the expat community, kind of like a private version of 9-1-1. You pay a small fee and your details are registered with the provider (down to your pet information, should emergency pet care be needed if you have to go to the hospital). Depending on your circumstances, this could be a valuable service.