One of the biggest advantages of living in Panama is the high-quality health care readily available throughout the country. Medical facilities and services are truly world-class, and doctors and specialists are highly accomplished. Many speak English, have been trained in the United States, and are board certified. What’s more, medical attention, insurance and medications are highly affordable. If you seek medical attention in Panama, you’ll find that costs are about 50% less than they are in the United States.

Of course, learning how to navigate a country’s health care system can seem daunting, but with the right kind of information you’ll be able to make the best choices for yourself and your family. The first thing you need to understand are the three kinds of health care offered in Panama. The government offers public medical attention through Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud), which maintains clinics and health centers throughout the country. You’ve probably seen some of their white buildings painted with yellow and green stripes. Services at these clinics are very, very low-cost, and even though they are provided by the government, I’ve never known a foreigner to have been denied treatment. However, the reality is that these health centers are often underfunded and understaffed. A second health care option available to Panamanians is the Social Security Fund (Caja de Seguro Social), which runs public hospitals and clinics emblazoned with the blue CSS logo. These services are available only to Panamanians, though, who pay into the Social Security system.

Luckily, private healthcare is readily available to Panamanians as well as foreigners. There are numerous hospitals and clinics in Panama City and other places like David, in Chiriquí Province, and in my view they have many advantages over health care even in the U.S. The facilities are modern and technologically sophisticated, doctors and staff are well-trained, and even the fanciest hospitals are affordable. While private hospitals do no offer coverage for U.S.-based insurance plans, or for retirees and veterans, other options available to foreigners include private Panamanian or internationally-recognized insurance plans. Hospitals and clinics expect payments to be made in cash upon leaving the facilities.

Some of the most recommended hospitals include Centro Médico Paitilla, which is affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and is also a certified training facility for the American Heart Association; Hospital Punta Pacifica, he only hospital in Latin America affiliated with Johns Hopkins Medicine International; Clinica Hospital San Fernando, affiliated with Tulane University, Miami Children’s Hospital, and the Baptist Health International Miami; and the Hospital Nacional, affiliated with the Harvard Medical Faculty and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. In Chiriquí Province, Hospital Chiriquí and Centro Médico Mae Lewis are very popular choices with expats. Both are located in David.

Now, reading about hospitals and medical services is one thing, but experiencing them is something else entirely. Since moving to Panama from California five years ago, I’ve had first hand experience in many of the facilities listed here. While I offer here my perspective– and my family’s– as Americans who have been visiting Panama every year since 2000, and living in Panama since 2007, we’ve found that our experiences are consistent with those of other expats. Hopefully these anecdotes will help you get a better picture of what health care in Panama is actually like.

One night my husband Dan ended up doubled over in pain from severe stomach cramps. By 3:00 am it was bad enough that the thought of waiting until morning to see a doctor was just too much. I didn’t have time to research hospitals, so I drove him to the nearest one, which happened to be Centro Médico Paitilla. From the moment we walked through the door, everything went smoothly. Granted, since it was the middle of the night the waiting room was empty, except for a well-dressed but bloody twenty-something man who had gotten into a fight coming out of a nightclub. The emergency room staff attended to us immediately, and within minutes my husband was lying in a bed hooked up to an IV and pain medication. After a couple of hours of treatment he was good to go, and even though we were relieved that he was feeling better, we were a little nervous about the bill. We didn’t have medical insurance coverage in Panama, and weren’t sure what to expect. It was our first time at a hospital in Panama. Thankfully, the bill was only $150, which we paid with our U.S. debit card before walking out the door. What a relief! No hassle, no paperwork, no wait. We went home quite impressed with how clean and quiet the hospital was, and how friendly and attentive the staff was.

That was five years ago, and since then we’ve gotten to know the health care system in Panama a lot better. One of the best experiences I’ve had has been at ultra-modern Punta Pacifica, where I’ve found a wonderful dermatologist who speaks English and was trained at Johns Hopkins, to boot. At one point, finding myself in a rural area, I even ventured into one of the public clinics (Centros de Salud)– but don’t go unless you speak some Spanish. I don’t have any complaints about the medical attention per se, though you should be prepared to deal with crowded waiting rooms and overworked staff. But with all the private options available throughout the country, there really is something for everybody and every budget. I’m very happy with my regular private clinic, where I’ve gone for things ranging from a sprained ankle to a throat infection. As with many medical centers, they offer a “membership plan” for discounts off of the already low prices. State of the art facilities and affordability aside, the best thing about health care is Panama is the personalized attention from doctors. They truly go out of their way to make themselves available. You can call them at their office, you can call them at home, and they will even make house calls! Can you imagine this sort of attention from your regular HMO back in the U.S.? But don’t take my word for it. Come to Panama and experience first-rate medical attention for yourself!