Liz Larroquette
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Doctor with Stethoscope and sunset

Medical Tourism Is Both Personal and Profitable

When I began selling real estate in Panama about a decade ago, it was pretty much limited to finding the right condominium for North American retirees who wanted a lower cost-of-living but with the beauty of living on the beach and eating out at bargain rates. There were plenty of potholes to go around and searches for preferred groceries often went unanswered. My most successful clients were laid back and easy-going, able to welcome the challenges of a developing nation and accept that mañana was just the way it was. Panama routinely topped the lists of “Best Retirement Locations” and I loved finding just the right spot for each individual.

I still love the challenge of finding the perfect place but, a lot has changed.

Writing on water Top 10

Panama still appears at the top of 'Best Places to Retire' lists

Panama has grown at such a rapid rate, it is difficult to monitor and report the progress. We are still at the of top most “Best Retirement Locations” but for different reasons. In those ten years we have introduced a modern transit system with sleek buses and a beautiful clean subway system. Panama embraced taking on environmental challenges and began a multiple year, multi-million dollar project, to dredge the Bay of Panama and guarantee clean, safe drinking water for 98% of the residents. The Panama Canal has been successfully doubled and there is plenty of money for social programs. English has been embraced and thousands of teachers have been sent to the United States, Canada and Great Britain to learn best practices for teaching our children the language of business.

The Defacto Financial Capital

Skyscrapers sky clouds

Panama - the financial hub of Central America

The skyline of Panama City looks like those of the most modern cities in the world. We are now the de facto financial capital of Central America and multi-national companies and banks almost always have a presence in our capital. Ten years ago, well-heeled shoppers from South and Central America hopped planes to Miami to buy Gucci, Prada and Rolex watches. Today they come to Panama City. We also have stores like Banana Republic and Gap.

Our restaurants, nightlife and cultural offerings are diverse, innovative and often times free. Our international airport is undergoing a complete renovation and direct flights are not just to North and South America, but also the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

Oversized Windows And Lots Of Light

Real estate prices are still a bargain compared to much of the world, but I’ve watched the investments of those first clients increase dramatically along with fewer potholes, way more grocery stores catering to expats and infinity pools are now the standard. What is on the market today in terms of residential units, have oversized windows with lots of natural sunlight, elegant ensuite master bathrooms, gourmet kitchens and balconies that capture stunning ocean views.

Individuals coming to Panama today are no longer just retirees, but lots of young international executives with trailing spouses and children. They are often stunned by the reasonable prices, tax abatements and welcoming governmental regulations.

Matisse rooftop play area

Matisse by Empresas Bern offers a roof top play area, to appeal to many of the international executives moving to Panama with their families.

The combination of well-priced real estate, solid government programs and opportunities for an exceptional lifestyle continue to keep Panama as an ideal place to live, but there is one other aspect that has begun to unfold. Medical tourism.

Ten years ago, I didn’t imagine myself talking to physicians trained in Europe, the Americas and Asia about setting up a medical practice in Panama City, but as insurance companies and corporations try to control the spiraling medical costs, Panama once again is stepping up with solid answers.

The Jumble Of Medical Costs

“I graduated fourth in my class at the Icahan School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York” said a young man who recently stood looking at the new TownCenter complex in Costa del Este, just outside Panama City. “While I am Panamanian and that gives me the ability to practice here in my home country, I actually never thought I’d come home. Medicine in New York has become a nightmare. The rules for billing, non-healthcare professionals overruling my requests for needed tests and the jumble of pricing is killing my love of helping people,” he explained.

“I specialize in replacing knees and the cost can be anywhere from $90,000 in New York to $60,000 if I’m advising a case in DeMoines. Outcomes and the hardware used are generally the same, but there are different settings, codes, personnel, approvals. Prices vary widely and without insurance or enough cash, people are simply denied,” he explained.

doctors standing in a corridor

Many self-insured companies are sending their employees to Panama to save on the cost of treatment, without sacrificing the quality of care.

“What would it cost in Panama City” I said, feeling a great need to understand. “I mean if you came home to practice.”

“There is a grocery chain in the south that routinely sends their employees to Central America for knee replacements and if you count the airfare, lodging, meals and a local companion who is fluent in English, the surgery and initial rehab, you would be talking around $15,000. Huge savings for many corporations who are self-insured or for the insurance companies themselves. Often times you experience better outcomes because here in Panama, physicians have more time with their patients. This is why I want to practice here. I can provide great care based on what I feel the patient needs,” he concluded as we started walking to look more closely at TownCenter.

The Heartbeat Of Costa del Este

I thought to myself how TownCenter is destined to become the heartbeat of Costa del Este, a developing area of Panama City that is a planned community catering to young professionals, multinational corporations, dedicated green space and upscale retail and restaurants.

TownCenter suites

The TownCenter commercial area will house a suite of medical consulting rooms, ready for the new Hospital Punta Pacifica in Costa del Este.

Part of the attraction to TownCenter are the multiple floors of medical offices with shared laboratories, radiology practices and other supporting medical specialities. There is also the new Hospital Punta Pacifica of Costa del Este, which will be the second local facility affiliated with the world-renowned Johns Hopkins Medicine. The hospital, supporting medical services and physician practices are all connected physically. A JW Marriott hotel is currently under construction as part of the complex, along with floors of retail space and restaurants. Completion is set for late 2017.

Many of Panama’s most gifted citizens attend medical school in North America and many of them decide not to come home once educated. It made me pause thinking about the best of the best of Panama coming home to treat the people they would normally have treated in the United States, while practicing in Panama. It’s a change almost as amazing as everything I have witnessed in the last ten years. Panama is doing it her way and the option of bankrolling a medical practice certainly spells profit. I’m changing the options for my clients.

Treating A Heart Condition In India

“It never entered my mind I’d want to do anything connected to medical tourism,” said the young physician. “I always thought of it as rich Asians getting facelifts in Singapore and people with few options being treated for their heart condition in India. That isn’t what is happening today,” he continued.

Children blue sky grass

Happy parents with their children in the park

“I’m looking for a balanced life and doing the work I love. The area has wonderful schools for my family, better than when I went to school here, we are on the same time zone as New York and I don’t have to worry about what direction healthcare will take in the United States. Besides my children will grow up with the same traditions.”

As we walked along the beautiful Central Park of Costa del Este, I asked about where he thought he and his family would like to live. “Right here,” he responded quickly. “Look at all these fabulous buildings, with amazing water views and every type of amenity. Of course my mother can’t believe I’m coming home. She’ll be thrilled. The kids will be thrilled. It’s all good.”

We've Come a Long Way

I smiled thinking about those first clients who coped with pot holes and little fondas located along the highway. It’s hard to mentally put the two Panamas together. While we are still a great place to retire, we are also just a great place to be. I’m anxious to see where my clients’ investments now take them, along with this explosion of medical tourism. I feel sure it’s all a good thing.

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About the Author Liz Larroquette

Whether you are looking to retire in Panama, relocate your family, or buy property as an investment Liz is a wealth of knowledge you can and should tap into.

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