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An Overview of Latin American Healthcare Systems

Latin America is made up of many different countries, each of which has its own unique healthcare system. Generally speaking, healthcare services tend to be much cheaper in Latin American countries than in many other parts of the world. Universal public healthcare is available in major countries such as Argentina, Columbia, and Chile, making it an attractive destination for healthcare services.

In this Pacific Prime Latin America article, we’ll provide an overview of Latin American healthcare systems to help uncover some important information on healthcare and health insurance in the region.

Public vs Private Healthcare

As the region is home to more than 19,000 hospitals, Latin America offers plenty of choices for healthcare. In fact, one shocking Latin American healthcare statistic is that Brazil is home to more hospitals than in the US alone, with 6,642 hospitals in 2023. The best hospitals in Latin America are located in the larger cities, while facilities in remote and rural areas often do not suffice.

One of the main things you need to think about when you’re looking for a medical service is which facility you should go to. Some countries in Latin America provide free, high-quality healthcare. While you can typically access quality healthcare in Central America and South America, some countries throughout the region can prove challenging.

Public Healthcare

Boasting established healthcare systems, there are places in Latin America where public healthcare is prioritized by the government. Take Brazil, for example. Despite being a poorer country, Brazil’s healthcare system is one that is often praised. Conversely, Argentina’s public healthcare system offers both inpatient and outpatient care to its citizens free of charge. While there is no universal general practitioner (GP) system in the country, physician-led care can be found in specialist clinics and hospitals.

Disadvantages for Expats

The public healthcare systems can certainly be advantageous to locals, though the same often cannot be said for expats. To begin with, foreign nationals and expats may find it difficult to communicate with medical professionals. Since English-speaking doctors are not always available in public facilities, an interpreter may be needed. Even though medical staff are generally well-trained, the inconsistency of adequate aftercare and nursing has many expats looking for private alternatives instead.

Private Healthcare

Many expats prefer private facilities because of their high-quality level of care and consistency. Private facilities also tend to have shorter queues and are rarely overcrowded. All in all, the benefits of private healthcare facilities in Latin America make spending a bit more easily justifiable.

Cost of Healthcare in Latin America

Americans have been going to Latin America for medical treatment for quite some time, with Mexico being one of the most popular options. The cost of healthcare in places such as Mexico, Columbia, and Panama is significantly less than in the US, despite offering excellent quality of care. Compared to the US, medical procedures in Mexico and Costa Rica can save you 36% – 89% and 44% – 89%, respectively.

For example, visiting a neurosurgeon costs USD $40 in Mexico while visiting a general practitioner costs USD $15-25 per visit. Likewise, the average price of teeth cleanings in a modern facility is around USD $50. Latin American countries such as Panama are quickly becoming the destination of choice for medical tourists who are looking for high-quality medical treatment at affordable costs.

Expats in Costa Rica, which has one of the best public health systems in the world, can access free healthcare for around USD $50 – $150. Though the exact cost depends on one’s income, free healthcare includes prescriptions, routine checkups, and even surgery.

Since Latin America consists of multiple countries, it’s best to check out information about the specific country you are currently living in or thinking about relocating to for a more accurate idea of the local cost of healthcare.

Is International Health Insurance Necessary for Expats in Latin America?

Expats in Latin America typically do not have the same access to medical assistance as the locals do. Luckily, international health insurance can help expats and their families get the best treatment and medical assistance according to their plan of choice. It is also worth noting that some private hospitals and clinics won’t accept you for treatment unless you can prove that you have private health insurance or enough money to pay for treatment.

In places like Argentina, foreign nationals can receive emergency treatment for free. However, expats might still want to secure private health insurance in case complex conditions arise or to have access to higher-quality private care.

How to Get the Best Health Insurance in Latin America

If you’re from a country where purchasing individual health insurance isn’t necessary, then the task of securing a private health insurance plan might seem daunting and confusing. The types of insurance coverage that you can expect from a personal health insurance policy include:

  • Inpatient coverage – This type of coverage, which is also known as hospital insurance coverage, will cover your hospital bills if you need to be admitted overnight. Health insurance plans usually offer inpatient coverage as a bare minimum.
  • Outpatient coverage – This benefit offers coverage for medical treatment that doesn’t involve hospitalization or an overnight stay, such as GP visits.
  • Maternity coverage – This benefit can be added to an insurance plan for those who are planning to conceive a child. This type of insurance covers prenatal and delivery costs, along with postnatal emergency care in some cases. It’s worth noting that maternity coverage has a waiting period of anywhere between 10 to 24 months, so you should secure it prior to getting pregnant.
  • Vision and dental coverage – These two add-ons are popular since they help cover optical and dental expenses.

There are also many other things you’ll need to think about, such as your geographical area of coverage (local or global) and whether you need coverage for pre-existing conditions.

Put Your Health First with Pacific Prime Latin America

If you need help choosing the right health insurance plan, it’s advisable to consult an established broker such as Pacific Prime Latin America. Whether you’re looking for family health insurance, retiree health insurance, or anything in between, we’re here to help. With more than 20 years of experience in the industry, we have the knowledge and expertise to help you secure the ideal policy for your needs and budget.

Contact us for impartial advice and a free plan comparison today!

Check out our blog to stay up to date on the latest on insurance, Latin American healthcare trends, and more. We’ve also got topics for employers and HR in the region, such as this popular article on mental health in Latin America.

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Senior Copywriter at Pacific Prime Latin America
Jantra Jacobs is a Senior Copywriter at Pacific Prime with over 10 years of writing and editing experience. She writes and edits a diverse variety of online and offline copy, including sales and marketing materials ranging from articles and advertising copy to reports, guides, RFPs, and more.

Jantra curates and reports on the results of Pacific Prime’s monthly newsletters, as well as manages Pacific Prime’s Deputy Global CEO’s LinkedIn posts. Complemented by her background in business writing, Jantra’s passion for health, insurance, and employee benefits helps her create engaging content - no matter how complex the subject is.

Growing up as a third-culture kid has given her a multicultural perspective that helps her relate to expats and their families while 8 years of working remotely have given her unique insight into hybrid work arrangements and enthusiasm for employee benefits.
Jantra Jacobs