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Health Care in Panama City

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Thursday, 29 March 2007 10:00
I arrived to Panama City as “that sick girl”. Not only was I sick, but with my self-diagnosed bronchitis; had it rolled off the tongue a bit smoother, I most definitely would have been labeled “that noisy, germ expectorating sick girl with whom no one wants to share an office or small public space”. I started coughing less than a week before leaving from San Jose, Costa Rica for Panama City, Panama on a 15-hour ride in the epitome of small public spaces: the public bus. This was going to call for some heavy reinforcements of the medicated variety.

Being familiar with the “everything is over-the-counter fair game” policy in Costa Rica, I “consulted” with the local Tico pharmacy technician who agreed I must have bronchitis despite not hearing my cough nor asking how I arrived to that conclusion. She offered me a cough suppressant/expectorant, and throat lozenges. While the drowsy effect was quite welcome and apropos for my sleepless border crossing, the drugs did little to curb my rabid cough.

Upon arriving in Panama City, I had to take on a new strategy to dispel my image as the poster girl of bad health. After speaking with my doctor at home who recommended Azythromycin antibiotics and an Albuterol inhaler, I waltzed over to my local pharmacy in El Cangrejo, confident with my preparation and knowledge of the specific dosage that I should take. I had heard that this particular pharmacy did not require prescriptions. Nothing could go wrong.

Not the case. The kind pharmacist informed me that he did not have the specific antibiotic, but instead, one that cost over $3 more per pill. Seeing the opportunity to save $20, I decided this was not the place for me. Not to mention the fact that he was unfamiliar with Albuterol inhalers. In the spirit of competition, he directed me to another pharmacy in the El Rey supermarket chain. It was there that my bubble vision of the third-world country over-the-counter free-for-all burst. “No prescription?” the pharmacist asked shaking her head. No drugs.

Defeated, I returned home empty handed, still not wanting to shell out money for a medical visit for the common (yet somewhat violent) cough. Upon seeing my disappointment, my Panamanian apartment mate (a dentist) offered to request a prescription from his cousin who conveniently has access to the prescription papers and official stamp of his father (a surgeon). Equipped with this little piece of fabricated magic, we rushed to the 24-hour Arrocha Pharmacy at midnight to order the drugs. Two minutes later, after negotiating a cheaper, generic brand, and yet still $51 poorer, I had my relief.

I had cut some corners, but I was sure it would pay off in the end. However, at the end of my 6-day supply of antibiotics, my cough somehow got a little bit worse. Fearing pneumonia or some fatal lung infection, I decided to take a step back, suck it up, and try out a private health clinic.

Eighteen days after my cough had initially started, I finally stepped foot inside the Clinica Einstein on Via Argentina, near the big Einstein head statue that sits at the crossroads of three streets, as recommended by a co-worker.

I was impressed. Everything looked spic and span and, as if to quell any leftover doubts, a cleaning lady with a permanent smile dotted in and out of rooms, and was even found scrubbing the sparkling white walls in the waiting area. This particular clinic had a quaint feel, with two general exam rooms, a physical therapy room, a laboratory, a dentistry room and another for X-rays, all surrounding the reception/waiting area downstairs.

I had to wait about 30 minutes to see the doctor because his colleague didn't feel like showing up to work until that afternoon, without an excuse. The doctor who was there, although stressed, attended to me in an orderly, unrushed manner and spoke nearly perfect English. He staggered three of us patients rather than waiting to finish the care of the first before moving on to the second. An hour after first seeing him, I was done.

In the end I had to pay $25 for the check-up, and $26 for a chest X-ray to rule out any nasty infections. In general, no check-up should cost more than $50 in Panama unless X-rays or lab work are necessary. Where does this happen in the states? I was dismissed with a new prescription for cough suppressant pills and the peace of mind that comes with knowing that death is not in fact imminent. When I meandered over next door to purchase the 10 pills, I was charged $2.10, again for a generic variety because they did not have the exact pills to which I was prescribed.

So, moral of the story is, if you aren't feeling well in Panama, go to see a doctor. I would have saved a lot of time spent looking up my maladies online and the anxiety that followed my self-diagnosis of pneumonia, bronchitis, and a sinus infection (based on my swollen eye-lids), among others.

After further research I discovered that in general, Panama is known for its quality health care, facilities, and U.S. or UK board-certified or Joint Commission International (JCI) accredited medical staff. My U.S. health insurance recognizes the Hospital Centro Medico Paitilla on Avenida Balboa (also on Calle 53), which has a great reputation for health care and a high percentage of doctors who speak English and studied in the United States.

The United States' number one ranked hospital, Johns Hopkins Medical Center, affiliates itself with the Punta Pacifica Hospital in Panama City and the older Hospital Nacional is affiliated with Family Hospital Group of Boston, Massachusetts and has an International Insurance department to assist foreign care-receivers billing needs. This is all to say that, economically and physically, with a little sense, you have little to fear.
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