Panamanian Healthcare to the Rescue During COVID-19

When my husband Dan and I first considered moving to Panama in 2017, accessible and professional healthcare was at the top of our list.

And we discovered that in Panama, with both a public and private healthcare system, there’s plenty of options to receive quality healthcare, with costs up to five times less than the U.S. and with zero waiting time for procedures.

We decided on a private health insurance plan affiliated with one of the renowned hospitals in Panama City, the Clinica Hospital San Fernando, to cover any major health issues. The cost is $180 a month for both of us, with a 70% deductible.

We settled in the small fishing village of El Ciruelo, 20 minutes from Pedasí, near the southern tip of Los Santos province in Panama’s “Dry Arc”. Here we most often use the local public healthcare system.

To see a doctor in the Pedasí hospital clinic will set you back $2. Antibiotics are $4. And with the local doctor’s English efforts and some “Spanglish”, there’s no difficulty communicating.

Chitré, which is about 90 minutes away, is home to several larger hospitals and a more expansive network of healthcare providers. With our pensionado privileges, the generous residency program for retirees in Panama, seeing our GP in Chitré costs $35. He usually spends at least 30 to 45 minutes discussing any concerns—in English.

However, recently we had the opportunity to test our private healthcare insurance.

I have had an ongoing ear issue which was alleviated with the placement of a tube in my right ear in August 2019 at San Fernando Hospital. I was due to see my English-speaking ear specialist there again mid-March 2020 for a regular visit, but due to strict COVID-19 quarantine measures we could not travel to Panama City.

Of course, as luck would have it, at the end of March my ear situation took a turn for the worse with my hearing dramatically diminishing. I sent a panicked WhatsApp text to my doctor and she immediately responded with several prescriptions—sent by WhatsApp—which included a stronger antihistamine, a nasal spray, and antibiotic eardrops.

At that time, we were on gender and age quarantine restrictions. It was a male day for going out and luckily it was just at the start of the two-hour seniors’ window (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.), so my husband had just enough time to drive to the Pedasí pharmacy and back.

Everything went well until the end of July when I began noticing my hearing was diminishing once again.

Quarantine measures were starting to lift (gender and age restrictions were gone, and we were down to a 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. curfew) and COVID-19 numbers were improving in Panama City. So, we decided it was time to make the five-hour trip.

This was the beginning of August, and my doctor was only in her office on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so we arranged an appointment. She also had to provide us with a salvoconducto (safe conduct) letter, which gave us special permission to travel to Panama City.

We had to present this letter, our residency cards, and our driver’s licenses at various police and health checkpoints. We headed to Panama City on August 17 with some trepidation, but all went smoothly. Everyone at the checkpoints was very courteous as they took our temperatures and examined our paperwork.

Only a handful of hotels were permitted to be open during COVID-19 and luckily one of our favorite city hotels was among them. This all-suite hotel with king-size bed, full kitchen, and plenty of living space usually goes for $70 a night, including a full breakfast. However, as all food services were pick-up or delivery only, they were charging $50 a night for the suite.

At my appointment with my specialist at San Fernando Hospital ($15 per visit because of our insurance), it was determined that I could not hear anything out of my right ear. The specialist could see that the tube that had been inserted previously had come out, which is normal, and that I needed to have another one put in.

I now needed to have a COVID-19 test done before they could perform the procedure. So, we decided to return to El Ciruelo and have a health professional come to the house to perform the test. This would also give us time to submit the surgery preauthorization paperwork to our insurance company.

On September 3 we were back in Panama City for the short procedure required to insert the tube. The hospital was spotless, the staff were cheerful and efficient, and I saw my specialist both before and after the surgery. I have to admit that I was nervous about having the procedure done during the pandemic, but everything went seamlessly.

The total cost to us was $614 and I can hear perfectly again.

The specialist has sent several WhatsApp follow-up messages and we will need to head back to Panama City at the end of October to see her. With restrictions lifting even further, this should be a much easier trip. Salvoconductos are no longer required, curfew hours are being extended, and Tocumen International Airport is scheduled to open up on October 12, reflecting a further step towards the new normal.

We have had excellent experiences in both the Panamanian public and private healthcare systems, even during COVID-19, and for us a combination of both seems to work best.

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