Panama’s Health Tourism Boom

A new kind of tourism is sweeping into Panama, but these visitors are not just coming for sun and fun. Offering first-rate health care at cut-rate prices, Panama is attracting the latest kind of traveler: the medical tourist.

Medical tourism is a rapidly growing, multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. Countries like India and Thailand have long been attracting patients from developed countries looking to escape the high prices and long waits at home, providing high-quality health care at a fraction of the price.

Panama is one of the latest countries to emerge on the health tourism scene, offering US-trained doctors, state-of-the-art infrastructure and equipment, plus a distinct advantage — proximity to North America. With as many as 45 million Americans uninsured, and Canadians waiting up to two years for critical procedures, many are looking south for alternatives.

“The demand is very strong, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” says Rudy Rupak, president of Planet Hospital, a medical tourism agency researching qualified doctors and hospitals in countries around the world to perform procedures for clients who cannot afford, or wait, in their home countries.

His company recently added Panama to its list of destinations, thanks to the newly-opened Punta Pacifica hospital, an affiliate of the prestigious US hospital, John Hopkins Medicine International.

“We look for doctors who are educated in the USA, or other excellent institutions abroad such as in Canada, the UK or Europe,” explains Mr Rupak, “as well as peer review, publications over the years in their area of specialization, and patient interviews.”

“I see Panama as a strategic place, with a good location, just a five or six hour flight from the US. But the main factors are quality of doctors and the presence of a US hospital,” he says.

Add to that a beautiful setting for recovery, personalized care, short wait times and price tags 40% to 70% less than those in the US — and the allure is clear.

Dr Richard Ford, medical coordinator of Pana-Health, a group of doctors specializing in medical tourism to Panama, estimates tourists spent in approximately $5 million last year on procedures such as cosmetic surgery, in-vitro fertilization, orthopedic prostheses, dentistry and laser eye surgery.

Despite the growing trade, the Panamanian government is not yet tracking health tourism numbers, but Dr Ford says they are on the rise, pegging 2006 figures at more than one thousand, a sharp increase over previous years.

“[That] is about 35 per cent more than the previous year and 80 per cent more than the year before,” he estimates.

While these numbers might seem small, Rudy Rupak believes they are about to explode, with many health officials and policy makers in the US calling for Medicare to pay for procedures abroad, to relieve a soon-to-be overburdened health care system.

Debra Lipson, a senior health researcher speaking at an AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) forum, said outsourcing medical care could amount to big savings in the US.

According to one study, she said, “the US could save $1.4 billion annually if only one in ten US patients receives treatment for 15 low-risk medical procedures abroad.”

Many of those who migrated from Latin America are returning to their home countries to retire, she pointed out, also taking advantage of ‘more affordable aged care support and services’.

“My husband’s parents recently moved back to Panama, after spending 15 years in the US,” she recounted. “They are still among the “young-old” — not yet out of their sixties. But my mother-in-law has a neurological condition that requires constant vigilance and I sleep better at night knowing that she has reliable, affordable care.”