Health Care in Medellin: English Options Expanding for Expats, Medical Tourists
Medellin’s hospital, clinic and dental sector enjoys an expanding reputation for high quality and relatively low prices -- which explains why an increasing number of resident expats and medical tourists come here for all sorts of surgical procedures.
Part of the reason for these success stories can be credited to the bilingual Salud Sin Fronteras (SSF) network, which includes the prestigious San Vicente Fundacion hospitals, Clinica Las Vegas, Clinica Las Americas and Clinica de Oftalmologia San Diego (see SSF interview, below).
Medellin Herald has also published detailed reports on numerous hospitals, clinics, insurors and the public-health system in Colombia (see the “hospitals, health and insurance” section under the “Antioquia” news category).
In addition, Medellin recently launched new international-patient departments at the Pablo Tobon Uribe hospital (the first hospital in Medellin to win the coveted Joint Commission International quality certification), the Clinica Cardio VID cardiovascular specialist clinic, and the Clinica El Rosario.
To get an expert, independent view of such services, Medellin Herald interviewed a former U.S. resident – a retired medical doctor (M.D.), now living in Medellin -- who recently underwent knee-replacement surgery at Clinica El Rosario.
The total cost for this procedure here: about US$6,200, or about eight times cheaper than the average U.S. price as quoted in a recent study by HealthLine (USA) for a total knee replacement (TKR) or about six times cheaper than a partial knee replacement (PKR) quoted in the same study.
Here is what this highly experienced U.S. physician said about his medical-procedure experiences here in Medellin:
“My experience with Colombian medical care has been good. My wife and I have enrolled in EPS-Sura and in Grupo EMI [for home health care], both quite inexpensive per month.
“The EPS has been bureaucratic, but we have had referrals to specialists, Pap smears, ultrasounds, lab, ECG, and free or very-low-cost prescriptions -- including a very expensive medication for my wife, requiring a trip to a certain pharmacy in Laureles.
“I cannot purchase prepaid Sura health insurance due to my age [over 60]. I could have waited many months -- until the fall or winter -- to get a knee replacement via EPS, but the pain became a matter of urgency, and so I paid out-of-pocket to have the surgery ASAP.
“Our lawyer’s brother had complex knee surgery and so I took his recommendation for a surgeon: Dr. Raul Jaime Naranjo Correa, who works at Centro De Ortopedia El Poblado.
“Prior to surgery, my first course of treatment included trying three knee injections. But eventually my knee pain became intolerable, requiring surgery.
“This surgeon moved two patients [in the queue] to get me on the surgery schedule at Clinica Rosario near El Tesoro. Perhaps being a fellow M.D. helped [in jumping the queue].
“Although this hospital was not one of the eight Medellin hospitals ranked in the top 50 in South America, the care was fine -- although my lack of Español in speaking to nurses was, at times, problematic. And the food at the hospital was dreadful.
“My surgeon spoke ‘some’ English as did my physical therapist post-op. Dr. Naranjo was kindly and experienced and made two house calls after I was discharged, including removing my staples.
“We heard elsewhere that his clinic offered the best orthopedic care in Medellin, and that they operate on futbol [soccer] stars, I’m told. But I had no objective way to confirm this.
“Dr. Naranjo’s brother assisted at surgery -- and my case was difficult: more than three hours, rather than the usual one-and-one-half hours.
“Three nights in the hospital came to around COP$12,000,000 [about US$4,000 at current exchange rates] and the doctor fee was COP$6,500,000 [about US$2,150].
“Each physical therapy visit cost COP$31,000 [US$10]. To pay, I used credit cards and money transfers from my Alianza [brokerage] account.
“The cost was well worth it -- and I am glad to have had the surgery sooner rather than later. As a doctor, I am skeptical of the need for the ‘best’ physician for the vast majority of care. A total knee arthroplasty is a bread-and-butter operation for any experienced and competent knee surgeon.
“I would not demand the ‘best’ general surgeon to remove my appendix for example. I asked a few questions about number of knee replacements he had performed, complication rates, infection risks, etcetera and then decided to trust that he was able. Communication with one’s physician is probably the single most important factor in a doctor-patient collaboration, although not much talked about. Things have worked out.
“My knee replacement pain – about four months post-operation -- is slowly resolving and I have been walking up to two-to-three kilometers daily.
“I referred another expat to Dr. Naranjo for surgery on this expat’s very painful knee. Dr. Naranjo saw her right away. She was a bit fearful, but had an excellent experience and was grateful for the referral.”
In a recent interview with Medellin Herald, SSF CEO Julian Arbelaez provided an overview of various medical services, doctor referrals, transport and hotel services and patient-family tourism services available through the SSF network.
SSF was founded five years ago to help promote medical services to international patients, and today the network offers a wide variety of services including oncology, orthopedics, odontology, bariatric surgery, plastic surgery and many others.
While a handful of hospitals and clinics have created their own special departments for international patients, and some doctors separately advertise services in English, SSF has evolved to take a role as a central contact point for both resident expats and foreign medical tourists.
Many doctors and surgeons in Medellin have studied in the U.S. and Europe, which explains why 100 of the 600 doctors at Clinica Las Americas speak English and 20 doctors at San Vicente Fundacion are also English speakers, Arbelaez explained.
International patient counts at Medellin hospitals and clinics have been rising by an average of 12% per year, including a relatively high proportion of patients from Caribbean nations, he said.
Executive check-ups are another popular service for international visitors, and Colombians that now live and work overseas are also a growing percentage of those coming to Medellin for medical services, he added.
While international JCI certification isn’t yet common among Colombian hospitals and clinics, the national certification system is “very strict,” which helps assure patients that they’ll receive high-quality care, he said.
For example: Hospitals in Medellin frequently are rated higher on quality than hospitals in Costa Rica – even including Costa Rica hospitals with JCI certification, he said. What’s more, regulatory standards in Antioquia “are even more strict than those in Barranquilla or other regions” in Colombia, he said.
Another crucial advantage for patients employing the SSF network: Relatively short waiting times for service, he added. Patients can wait many months for certain surgeries through the national EPS networks, while patients in the SSF network often can get services in less than one month (and sometimes within days).
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