My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and we may receive a referral fee (at no extra cost to you) if you sign up or purchase products or services mentioned.


My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went AwryLiving in a foreign country means it’s in your best interest to learn the ropes. One of those ropes I wanted to become familiar with was the medical service in Panama.

I wanted to see how things flowed and have an idea of costs that were involved. I wanted to know what happens when you need to go to the hospital here.

If an emergency should happen while we’re here, being a little familiar with how things work here could prove extremely helpful.

That knowledge would obviously be beneficial to our family but, like the dedicated blogger I am, I thought this would be good information to share with you as well.

So I set out on a mission to test the medical service here.

But I needed something non-critical that I could schedule with the hospital. And that’s when I thought of an area good to roll with… the dermatologist!

Here’s the story of how things went – the confusion, the success, and then the weird win which was a failure for the mission.

 

The minor reason for medical service

Ok, keep in mind that the goal was to come up with a minor reason to go to the hospital. Thankfully, we’re generally a pretty healthy family so the need for medical service wasn’t something that comes along too often.

Instead, I had to do a little reaching. I had a mole on my head just above my hairline that had shown up a couple of years ago that I didn’t like. I also had another one appear on my forehead over the years as well.

My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry - Mole on My Head
Not really too noticeable to others up in my hairline but I don’t like it and it gets in my way when I cut my hair with the clippers
My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry - Mole on My Forehead
This one in the middle of my forehead stands out more than this picture shows, but it’s still not the end of the world. At least it’s flesh-colored, right?

So yeah, neither one of these is a big deal and they didn’t worry me medically. I just thought it would be nice to get rid of them so that became the perfect excuse to try out the system here.

 

Finding a dermatologist and making an appointment

Here in Boquete, Panama, we have a few doctors but no dermatologists that I was aware of. Most specialists are in the hospitals in David (about 45 minutes south of Boquete).

So I thought the best place to start researching would be on Facebook. There are a bunch of good Facebook groups here where you can usually find answers and recommendations for whatever’s on your mind. Here a just some of the expat groups I’m currently a member of:

And these groups don’t even count the ones dealing with food or buying and selling things here!

So I put a post up on the Boquete Community Group back in October of 2019 asking for recommendations for a dermatologist along with a few other areas of help:

My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry - Facebook Recommendations Request

I heard back almost immediately from a bunch of people and most everyone said the same thing along these lines…

“You want Dra. Karen Zapata at Chiriqui Hospital in David. She’s excellent, thorough, and speaks English extremely well.”

When everyone’s pointing to the same doctor as the way to go, I’ll take that as a good sign. As a side note, “Dra.” is the female title of the “Dr.” abbreviation in Spanish.

So it was time to make an appointment for some good-time medical service. This was on October 14, which is only a few months after we had moved to Panama, and let’s just say that my Spanish has improved a little bit since then.

I called Hospital Chiriquí and fumbled my way through the conversation. One of the reasons I love Panama so much though is how nice the Panamanians are – that wonderful lady worked with me for over 8 minutes as we tried to understand one another.

But all that matters is that I got an appointment scheduled for a couple of weeks later. It wasn’t the smoothest, but I was happy to pull it off. I’ve since learned that I could have called Rodny Direct for help with this. That’s an English-speaking subscription service we pay for to act as a liaison for medical emergencies. But he’s also able to help in a pinch for something like this.

 

Heading to Hospital Chiriquí

Being as we don’t have a car here, the city of David is close to an hour away by bus, and since I don’t know my way around the hospital area there, I decided to head out early. Even though my appointment wasn’t until late afternoon, I left mid-morning and figured I would do some shopping first at PriceSmart (Panama’s version of Costco).

It’s always a roll of the dice on the bus you get. Most of the busses are nice, newer, air-conditioned vehicles… and then there was the one I got on the crapshoot…

My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry - School Bus to David
Eh, I’m not picky… it got me from point A to B!

But for $1.75 for a 45-minute to an hour bus ride, it’s hard to complain. I got off in David about 11:30 am and took a taxi over to PriceSmart for $3. I did my shopping, enjoyed a couple of free wine samples, and then chowed down on an oversized hot dog while there for lunch…

My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry - Hot Dog
$1.99 for the giant hot dog for lunch

Once I was done shopping, I took another short taxi ride to Hospital Chiriquí for $2.50. My appointment was at 3:20 pm and I got to the hospital around 2 pm. I was obviously very early, but with the unknowns, I wanted to give myself plenty of wiggle room.

I walked in and found the directory. I swear I stared at this thing for at least 5 minutes trying to find Dra. Zapata’s name on the board…

My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry - Directory 1 at Chiriqui Hospital

Was I missing something? Did she go by another name? Am I in the right place? Is there a different wing I should be in?

I was starting to get a little anxious, but not too horribly because of all that extra time I had given myself. After a little bit though, I discovered another directory in a different place … and much to my relief, this one had Dra. Zapata’s info on it!

My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry - Directory 2 at Chiriqui Hospital

So I headed up to the third floor.

 

Waiting for my little medical service

As I was looking for room 301, it kind of reminded me of a hotel or even a retirement home. It was just a long hallway with closed doors on each side.

My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry - Hallway at Hospital Chiriquí

Her office was on the right and I’m happy that it was the last room in the hallway. Why? Because apparently, you don’t walk right into any of these doors. I happened to notice that just past her door was a reception area. I wouldn’t have seen that if her office door wasn’t down at the end.

My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry - Dra. Zapata's Office Door

So I went over to the receptionist and talked to her as best I could. She didn’t speak English so we fumbled through things with my broken Spanish and got me checked in.

The waiting area was nice but nothing elaborate like the Cleveland Clinic hospitals I’m used to from back in Ohio. They don’t spend money here on all the fanciness that doesn’t matter. There was a wall A/C unit in the room but it was still quite warm there… not hot, just a little more uncomfortable than I’m used to.

Hospital Chiriquí Waiting Room
Here’s a picture of the reception desk from my seat – I stayed seated because I didn’t want to stand out by taking photos there.
Hospital Chiriquí Waiting Room
Here’s the rest of the waiting room…
Room air conditioner
If this A/C unit wasn’t right by me or was broken, I don’t think I would have enjoyed my time in the waiting room!
My groceries
As if I didn’t stand out by being the only foreigner around, I toted in all my shopping bags with me!

Here’s what I thought was most interesting. Remember I’m a completely new patient for them and they have zero information on me thus far other than my name. The receptionist came over to me a couple of times. She needed my passport information and used a PDF copy of it that I have on my cell phone with no problems. She also asked for my email address which I provided. Then she asked if I had insurance. I replied “no” even though I do have expat insurance because I didn’t plan on using it.

And that was it.

In the U.S., this would have been the most complicated agenda ever. I would have had to fill out tons of forms asking way too much personal information like some giant inquisition. And if I had responded that I didn’t have insurance for medical service in the States, the sky would have definitely fallen.

But here, they took some basic info for identity, an email address for correspondence, and asked about insurance in case I wanted it sent through there. It was such a refreshing feeling compared to the over-complicatedness I’m used to.

Then I waited. I was told by others that doctors always run late here in Panama. So I brought along my Kindle Paperwhite, which is the best device ever invented, and continued to read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune” – an excellent read if you haven’t checked it out!

An odd thing I noticed is that more than once someone would check-in with the receptionist and then sit down right next to me even though most of the waiting area was empty. That’s not a bad thing at all just a little strange compared to what I’m accustomed to in the U.S. where people tend to space themselves out away from each other.

 

My appointment

I got called into Dra. Zapata’s office for my medical service just a minute or two after my scheduled time (so much for the lateness everyone told me about!).

The doctor’s office was a tiny room probably no bigger than 12′ x 12′. She was bilingual and asked me questions about my medical history just like any doctor would. She was friendly and also very informative.

For instance, she told me that we should always wear sunblock when we’re outside between 10 am and 3 pm. Being in the much hotter climate of David where the hospital was, I said, “But more so here in David than in Boquete, right?” Nope. She reminded me that David is almost at sea level whereas Boquete (in the mountains) is almost 4,000 feet above. Even though the climate is much cooler, being that high up means much higher UV rays. That makes sense but I never would have thought of that. It also explains why we get sunburned so quickly when out hiking.

Then she told me that we’d move into the exam room so she could examine the moles I have to start a history. The connected room was about the same size as the first room and had an exam table and the medical equipment she uses. She had an assistant there helping as needed.

Dra. Zapata had me take my shirt and shoes off and then spent probably 20 minutes examining any moles or marks she thought were important. She used a handheld microscope and took pictures with a regular smartphone which I thought was unusual. She laid a small ruler down next to each mole as she took the photos so she could build a history of size and shape to compare from later on down the line. She examined my head, neck, arms, back, stomach, legs, and feet. Then she even briefly checked inside my mouth. I didn’t even know it was possible to get melanoma or anything like that there. And, of course, she spent some time examining the mole on my forehead I told her I wanted to have removed.

In other words, she was very thorough, knowledgeable, and not rushed. After the exam, I put my shirt and shoes back on and we headed back over to the first room in the office.

The pictures she took had already uploaded from her phone to the computer and she was able to show me any skin abnormalities she thought worth discussing. We also talked about the mole on my forehead. She told me that it didn’t look like it was a problem and we could keep an eye on it. She made it very clear that she didn’t think it needed to be removed.

However, if I wanted it removed, it would be just for cosmetic reasons. She said it’s not a superficial one that could just be frozen or lasered off. Because it goes deeper, it would need to be done as minor surgery and would require a stitch or two.

The procedure would take 20 minutes or so and would cost $140… $140 with no insurance and that included the biopsy. Sounds like a plan. She said to just send an email to let them know if I wanted to schedule it. She also mentioned that she had some medical conferences and training over the next few weeks so we’d have to figure out a day that works then. Did you catch that? She was saying we could make the appointment in a couple of weeks versus the multiple months I’m familiar with in the States.

And that was it. I walked out of there after about 40 minutes total and paid for the service… $60. Again, this was with no insurance.

These prices might sound low if you don’t know health care outside of the U.S., but I was actually surprised by how high they were. Not in a bad way like it was ridiculous or something – it’s more than reasonable, but from what I had heard, I expected even lower prices.

Overall, I’ve never been to a dermatologist that was so thorough and spent that much time with me. She was friendly, didn’t rush, spoke great English, and provided excellent care. This was definitely worth the cost. And just remember, that’s without me having to pay any premiums for insurance along the way. Even employer-subsidized insurance can cost more than that in premiums along the way. I’m pleased with the costs and service I received.

I walked out and grabbed a taxi from the hospital to the bus terminal for $2.50. When we arrived, the bus was already heading out. My driver (a very nice guy) pulled up behind the bus and started honking, pulled to the side honking some more, and eventually flagged the bus driver to stop. I thanked the cab driver and then took the bus back to Boquete for another $1.75. By the way, I got one of the nice, newer, air-conditioned busses for the trip this time!

 

My big win but a failure to you

I planned to schedule a second appointment to have the mole on my forehead removed (and a couple of others) for sometime in January or February once we got back from our trip back to the U.S.

In fact, I sent emails to the doctor’s office that I didn’t hear back from to line it up. And then a friend of ours here chased them down over the phone. She speaks fluent Spanish so that was extremely nice of her to help with that. I finally had an appointment set for late February.

But, then a few events unfolded that made me cancel my appointment for medical service. The first and weirdest was that the mole on my head right about my hairline, um, disappeared.

Yeah, you heard that right. One day, I just noticed it was gone. I’m thinking that maybe on one of our hikes when I wore a ball cap (which I rarely do anymore), the brim rubbed it and knocked it off.

That’s gross to think about, right? Although I didn’t get a biopsy out of that though, it still saved me $140. Eh, Dra. Zapata said that was not one to be worried about anyway!

So then there was the one on my forehead to be removed. I was going to keep the appointment just for that, but then I started over-researching like I tend to do. Everything I read essentially said that I would be trading a mole for a scar based on the procedure. And although I didn’t like it, it was flesh-colored and didn’t stand out too much like it was.

I decided to cancel the appointment, which I somehow managed to handle in my broken Spanish over the phone.

Shortly thereafter, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we went into lockdown here.

And that got me thinking which is always trouble.

I read several articles about duct tape for wart removal. It seemed like an interesting idea even though it doesn’t always work. And it can take up to 8 weeks to accomplish. I’d be walking around with duct tape on my forehead like an idiot for almost two months.

Hmm, wait a minute – we’re stuck in lockdown for God knows how long and can’t leave our place. There would likely never be a better time to try this than now!

So I did.

Duct tape on my forehead
I know… I’m like an old man doing this kind of stuff, but really, who cares? I was at home the whole time with it on my forehead.

After a few weeks, it looked like we were making a little progress!

Mole on my forehead

Then another week…

Mole on my forehead

After a total of about a month, it had vanished completely!

No more mole on my forehead!
No Photoshop here, folks – that thing’s long gone!!

So that, my friends, is how you do it! Two moles removed without the use of medical service!

Ok, yes I know – this was not the smartest idea and I didn’t get biopsies done on either. Feel free to yell at me in the comments. But at least the doctor had a chance to examine them before and didn’t think they were problematic. And now I don’t have to feel self-conscious anymore about them.


I didn’t get to take you through a run of a second appointment and minor surgery. However, I still think this was informative of what to expect in medical service here in Panama.

I feel a little more comfortable in knowing how the flow of things will work if ever needed while here. And it’s good to see that the doctor was knowledgeable and provided great care. Throw in the reasonable costs and this makes me feel more confident about the expected care here in Panama.

 

Would you feel comfortable with getting medical service in another country? More importantly, is there anything more disgusting than the idea of my mole falling off? 

 

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

16 thoughts on “My Test Run of Medical Service in Panama Went Awry”

  1. TunaFishTuesdays

    Hi Jim, what a pleasant read to go with my morning coffee! 🙂 Ha ha, just kidding, but really – thanks for the informative story of your visit and the thinking behind it. Even little details like the people sitting next to you in the waiting room are helpful to visualize medical care in another country. Sounds like Dra. Zapata definitely did well by you. My wife and I have our eyes on several Central and South American countries to relocate to for a few years (when everything settles down…?), and would definitely use the medical care there, once a good practitioner was researched and found. Back in 1988 I had to have an emergency root canal performed on me when I was teaching on the Pacific island of Saipan (a US territory, but still…) – that only set me back $8, and has given me no problems since! So yes, the quality of care overseas or abroad can be quite good. Nice to have this article as a discussion point with the wife.

    1. Hopefully, I didn’t ruin that morning coffee for you! 🙂

      There are pros and cons to a lot of the Central and South American countries, but I’m very happy that we chose Panama as our place to live. This medical experience is just one more of those reasons that make me feel good about our decision.

  2. Thank you Jim, really interesting and informative!
    It’s good to hear of your personal experience and that medical service in Panama is reasonable and thorough. Two of the greatest concerns of mine would be the quality of healthcare and safety when considering relocating to another country. Sounds like Panama was a great choice!
    Also glad to hear your moles resolved themselves.

    1. Thanks, Shannon – quality of healthcare was high on our list when we first started looking at different countries. Panama supposedly hit the mark on paper but I just wanted to see a little bit of it for myself. 🙂

  3. Please wear sunscreen every day, regardless of the weather/season/elevation. It’s an inexpensive, preventive gift to your future self. I encourage 1-2 comprehensive skin checks for anyone who spends a fair amount of time outdoors, even if you’re in a car more than an hour/day in daylight.

    The contrast of the US’ overblown paperwork and “tons of forms asking way too much personal information like some giant inquisition.” highlights one of the US’ healthcare system’s main downfalls. I go to medical appointments with several name & address stickers so I don’t have to repeatedly write that. I hate it when they want to me to ‘review my history’ – and it’s not any genuine audit trail of prior health conditions, it’s just my name, address, birth date (which doesn’t change), & insurance info.

    Heaven forbid you ask for a price/cost – why is US healthcare pricing still shrouded in secrecy when everything else has been exposed? I get that some complex aspects, such as surgeries, may have ranges for ‘it depends’ scenarios, but a routine skin check like this should cost the same regardless of who’s participating. Why can I more easily access & estimate routine maintenance costs for every inanimate object in my life except my own body? Why is there no price list for routine exams posted at the reception desk? Something’s verrrry wrong. Oh wait, I know, the health insurers have formed a cartel in the US and they’ve set the prices. “And if I had responded that I didn’t have insurance for medical service in the States, the sky would have definitely fallen.” Yep, I have tried to ask for cost ranges as if I wasn’t insured and the front desk admin people completely fall apart.

    I’m always glad to see new uses for duct tape, one of life’s great problem solvers! If you have not seen Mythbusters’ duct tape episodes, you’re in for a treat. I usually carry a few inches of duct tape wrapped around a pen for easy, light transport in my bike’s bag. Guys can do this with an expired credit card in their wallets.

    1. Mary, I think you said it all on US healthcare… ok, that’s not true – we could probably go on and on with it. It’s a mess though, no doubt about it! It’s amazing to see the differences in another country like Panama. Simple and still quality healthcare. It’s not perfect but I’ll take it any day!

      Duct tape is really one of the most amazing inventions ever – is there anything it can’t do?! 🙂

  4. That’s a huge win! The duct tape thing is pretty amazing. I never heard of it until now.
    I had a growth removed from the top of my head about 10 years ago. They did a biopsy and it was fine, but it left a scar.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing your medical service experience. It sounds great. My parents live in Thailand and they have very cheap public healthcare, around $1 per visit. However, you’ll wait 3-4 hours to see a doctor. And they are super busy so they don’t pay that much attention to each patient. I told them to go to a private hospital, but they refuse because it’s more expensive. Oh well…

    1. Yeah, I had my doubts on the duct tape solution but I figured I had nothing to lose.

      $1 per visit… that’s pretty crazy. I probably should have mentioned that similar to Thailand, there are public and private hospitals here, too. The hospital I went to was a private one. Although the costs are cheaper at the public hospitals here as well, I’m told it’s like night and day in service just like you’re talking about. I’ll gladly stick with paying $60 for my visit! 🙂 I’m picturing your frustration when trying to convince your parents to go to the private hospitals… what can you do, right?

  5. Whaaa….duck tape removed your mole? How the heck does that work? Is there some chemical in the tape or something?

    I’m really curious how that works!

  6. Great article JIm, I was intrigued by your experience! I often consider retiring abroad but probably will only be a 50% er at best, at least at first.

    1. Thanks, Jake! Being a part-time expat is probably one of the smartest ways to do try living abroad. We took a big chance by not getting our feet wet first even though it worked out well for us. 🙂

  7. Hi Jim,
    I have a 26 year history with 13 skin cancers & all the scars to prove it. I had 3 more removed last Aug. WITH insurance I paid $7500 out of pocket which was my deductible!!! I’ve paid dearly over the years for all of those childhood sunburns. If you ever get another one, just watch if the color changes or if it gets larger.
    PS my husband’s primary doctor charges $165 for an office visit if you have insurance. That’s just to walk in the door. We paid $200 out of pocket with insurance for a cortisone shot. Without insurance, he quoted $100 just to write a prescription that would be left at the front desk, without even seeing him!!!! It’s the same prescription he’s been on for 13 years. The almighty dollar rules health care in the USA. Major reason we’re relocating as soon as the borders reopen!!

Leave a Reply to Jim @ Route To Retire Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.