Latin America | 11 Apr 2013
Plans to roll out a raft of medical facilities across Panama’s underserved provinces are set to help address a shortfall in health care services and support efforts to tackle key areas of concern, such as rising obesity levels and cancer rates.
While urban centres are well equipped with modern hospitals and clinics, some rural areas lack adequate health care infrastructure and satisfactory levels of sanitation.
In a multi-million-dollar initiative, Panama is building five hospitals across the country, alongside a major medical complex earmarked for the capital.
The country channelled around $2.2bn, or 8.7% of GDP, into health care in 2010 in combined outlays made by both the public and private sector. The figure marks the highest spend on health care in more than 15 years, up from a low of 6.7% in 2007.
Panama’s health care spending levels in 2010 compared favourably with those of many other Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries, including some of its neighbours. Chile spent the equivalent of 8% of GDP on health care in 2010, while in Mexico, the figure stood at 6.2 %.
The rise in spending came after Panama’s government in 2010 began a $386m drive to boost health care infrastructure across the provinces. The five new hospitals will benefit more than 500,000 citizens, or about 17% of the population, while providing Panama with an additional 1000 beds.
The $36.5m Pinogana Hospital in Metetí, Darien and the $30.6m Bugaba Hospital will open their doors first, with completion expected in the first half of 2013. The remaining $121m Chico Fabrega in San Antonio, the $59.5m Anita Moreno Hospital in Los Santos and the $110.5m Manuel A. Guerrero Hospital in Colón are all expected to be operational by January 2014. Three of the hospitals will replace existing centres.
While the new hospitals will provide the five provinces with new facilities, infrastructure development is also ongoing in Panama City, where work began in 2012 on a new 31.9-ha medical hub. The $586m Hospital City project will be rolled out in two phases, with the first stage earmarked for completion in May 2014. The second part, which is being overseen by the Social Security Fund (Caja Seguro Social, CSS), will begin operating the following year.
Alongside new health care facilities, preventative campaigns will have an increasingly significant role to play. The country is expected to focus on promoting healthy lifestyle choices, highlighting the part diet, exercise, giving up smoking and avoiding stress could play in reducing the risk of cancer.
Rising obesity levels, in particular, are giving cause for concern. More than 60% of the population were found to be overweight in 2012, according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), with a quarter (25. 4%) classed as obese.
Figures from the Ministry of Health (MoH) showed that in 2011, heart disease was Panama’s biggest killer, causing 17.1% of deaths. Malignant tumours, which were responsible for 16.1% of fatalities, came second, while diabetes led to 5.7% of deaths.
Preventing and treating medical conditions are not the only challenges for Panama’s health officials. The private insurance industry is also underdeveloped. Just 17.8% of private sector health care spending came from insurance in 2010, according to data from the WHO, with the remaining 82.2% taking the form of costly, out-of-pocket expenditure.
Panama’s levels of private sector health care spending, however, are lower than those recorded in many of the other countries across the region. Out-of-pocket spend on health care made up just 20% of total expenditure for the sector, much lower than Ecuador and Paraguay where it reached 55%, and Venezuela which recorded 54%, according to the WHO Global Health Expenditure Atlas 2012.
However, the country has a large number of informal workers among the poorer segments of its society who bear the brunt of the current set-up and contribute a significant proportion of total out-of-pocket expenses.