Panama pitches for Cayman’s patients

A new direct flight route between the Cayman Islands and Panama will not just open doors to tourism between the two destinations, but could also provide patients in Cayman with more options for health care at lower cost than they can get in the United States.

Doctors for some of Panama’s private hospitals, along with the manager of care management company International Triage, Shai Gold, attended last week’s Caribbean Health and Research Council/Caribbean Public Health Agency annual research conference in Grand Cayman. It was attended by 150 medical professionals from around the region.

While in the Cayman Islands, they highlighted why the Central American country is an attractive option and alternative to overseas health care to the US.

Mr. Gold held town hall meetings at a suite at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort where the conference was being held to introduce Cayman’s medical community and other visiting delegates to what Panama has to offer as a medical destination.

Cayman Airways is scheduled to begin offering direct flights to Panama from 31 May, on Thursdays and Mondays.

Although passengers from Cayman can fly to Panama from Miami already, direct flights will make it considerably easier and faster for people seeking medical attention to access hospitals and doctors in Panama.

“We are coinciding this to occur with direct flights,” said Mr. Gold.

He expects demand for medical care in Panama will come from two types of patient population, both of whom are seeking quality care solutions – those who cannot obtain or have difficulty obtaining US visas and those who are under-insured for treatment in the United States. Under-insured people refer to those with a limit in annual or lifetime spending in their health policies or who have a high co-pay.

“These people deserve quality care at an affordable price,” Mr. Gold said.

He added: “While Panama is an optimal option for persons without ability to obtain a visa to the USA, or persons who are under-insured for care in a costly USA hospitals, Panama should also be considered by well-insured people who value personalised service and smaller, private, hospitals. The bottom line is that regardless of the reason for choosing Panama for your health care, Panama is a first rate choice for all patients.”

One obstacle that he acknowledges may stand in the way of people in Cayman choosing Panama is a reluctance among English speakers to seek out medical care in a Spanish-speaking country. “English speaking nations tend to underestimate the quality of professional services available in Spanish speaking countries. It is, I think, not because of disrespect so much, but because of lack of information,” Mr. Gold said, adding that all the doctors in his network speak English, so patients should not fear they will not be understood or will not be able to communicate with physicians.

“Panama is an anomaly and phenomenon in the world of Central American health care because it is truly Americanised health care system insofar as private facilities, but also the training style in the public facilities and medical schools,” he said.

“In general, people have a fairly positive image of Panama because there’s really nothing negative known about it. There is a history, an affinity, between the people of the Caribbean and Panama because it was Caribbean labourers who built the canal … Many of the labourers actually stayed in Panama and there are ties to this days to the people who live there and the people in the Caribbean.

“Credibility, legitimacy and general familiarity exists. What is missing is knowledge of the professional options available,” Mr. Gold said.

Panama has seven private hospitals, five of which are in the International Triage network, which offers access to 1,000 physicians and 1,500 hospital beds.

An air ambulance trip from Grand Cayman to Panama City takes an hour and a half, Mr. Gold said.

“We have standing invitations to any health care professional who wants to visit the system, have a tour of all the facilities, meet leading physicians and just have an objective impression,” he said. “Doctors are evidence-driven people … When they see the depth of professional skill, the quality of ICU, the state-of-the-art diagnostic technology and laboratories and low-cost medications, then the question is, OK, now that I am convinced that the quality is on par with a typical North American facility, what is the cost difference?”, Mr. Gold said.

The cost difference, it turns out, is quite large, with the biggest savings seen in the more serious cases. Mr. Gold cited the example of an out-patient consultation with a specialist that costs between $350 and $650 in the US. An out-patient consultation with a specialist in Panama costs between $50 and $85. For an outpatient to undergo an MRI or cat scan, with interpretation of the film, in Miami costs between $600 and $1,200 and would cost between $4,000 and $6,000 for an inpatient. In Panama, Mr. Gold said, those scans cost the same for inpatients and outpatients and are about $385.

Neonatal cases, which are among the most expensive cases insurance companies deal with, can cost up to $1.5 million in the United States. In Panama, neonatal units costs $2,500 a day, all inclusive.

“In health care, price is not everything. We have to be sure that we are able to treat the case efficaciously, doing what is necessary well.

If we cannot do what is necessary well, we will reject the case.”
Mr. Gold knows about the cost of health care in the US. Until 2010, he was head of international services at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and was instrumental in marketing that hospital as a medical destination for the Caribbean.

His company, along with local health consultancy firm EagleMount Ltd., is also in the process of launching a health insurance product, called ASUIA, in Cayman and has applied for a licence, which is being reviewed by the Health Insurance Commission.

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