Moving to Mexico and Feeling Great!
When most of us are considering where we might want to live in Mexico, we are flooded with questions about oh-so-many things: the quality of life, the weather, safety, housing costs, whether our high-school Spanish will do, where the nearest golf course is, etc.
We are excited and full of happy anticipation as we contemplate a new lifestyle in a new country. We research and reach out to those who have gone before us through social networking. We are hungry for information, and so we devour articles and books and carefully plan to visit the places on our short list.
Moving to Mexico is one of the most important life transitions we will ever make, one that is enlivening and yet nerve-wracking in a good, almost thrilling way. There’s just so much to consider and the “to do” list for making an international move can just be breathtaking.
Many are reasonably healthy and feel that the change to a climate without the stress of winter snow and ice, where outdoor activities don’t require a trip to the gym and where life is lived at a more relaxed pace will be a boon to our overall health. Combine that with plenty of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables available year round and there is every reason to expect that moving to Mexico is a healthy decision.
And you know what? That would be right. Mexico offers most expats a surefire healthy lifestyle as long as we find a location with weather we tolerate well, adhere to common-sense daily exercise and avoid over-indulging in pan dulce (sweet baked goods), cervezas (beer) and the ubiquitous cola drinks, etc.
But not everyone arrives in Mexico in perfect health. Some bring long-standing chronic conditions. Some of these conditions are simply the result of aging and we look forward to basking in the warmth of Mexico’s sun. Other conditions have been brought on by years of poor diet, stressful jobs and inadequate exercise. Whatever the case, questions about medical care in Mexico arise immediately and need to be an integral part of the overall consideration about where to live.
No matter how healthy you are today, nearly all of us are going to need medical treatment in the future. And while we seldom think about it, the way that medical care is delivered is very much a part of a culture. This is just as true of Mexico. Most expats who’ve lived in Mexico for a while have come to appreciate most of those differences. In fact, in this article we are sharing the experiences of several long-term residents of the Lake Chapala area who’ve received medical treatment locally. Although we are quoting them verbatim, we are keeping their identities anonymous to protect their privacy.
World-Class Help is Always at Hand
Many aspects of medicine are international in nature. Consider the staff at your local hospital in the USA or Canada. If you look at the hospital’s website, you will usually find a list of the staff physicians and where they were trained. Typically, you will see at least some foreign-born doctors who were trained outside of the US. But even many of the native born doctors in the USA will have taken their basic medical-school training at universities all over the world.
In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that your doc in the USA went to medical school in Guadalajara, Jalisco, only about an hour away from Lake Chapala. One of the most popular medical schools for North American students, Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara (UAG), teaches the first two year’s curriculum in English while their foreign students study Spanish.
Indeed, Guadalajara, one of the three largest cities in Mexico, is a major center of medical training and treatment and UAG is only one of three major medical schools in Guadalajara. There are also ten major private hospitals plus a number of others run under the auspices of the Mexican public healthcare systems. Should your condition require hospitalization in Guadalajara, the excellent private hospitals include Hospital Country 2000, recommended by Focus on Mexico’s medical expert, Dr. Santiago Hernandez. Current room costs for Hospital Country 2000 are about $150 per night.
One of the advantages of living near such a major medical center is that board-certified medical specialists are readily available in virtually any field. So if at some point you need the services of a top cardiologist for example, you’ll be able to find him or her easily in Guadalajara and your local general physician may refer you to a doctor or hospital in Guadalajara.
An Overview of Local Medical Options
For many from the USA, it is a disappointment that the US Medicare program does not provide any coverage at all in Mexico. There have been lobbying efforts to change this in the past, but don’t hold your breath. While you will certainly want to keep the “free” Medicare Part A (and perhaps consider it a kind of major medical option), it will be up to you to decide if you wish to pay for Part B, etc.
If you live in the Lake Chapala area, you don’t have to go to Guadalajara for most care. There are many well-trained and experienced doctors—including a wide variety of specialists—practicing right in the neighborhood.
You’ll also find good quality medical facilities in the Lake Chapala area serving Chapala to Riberas del Pilar, San Antonio Tlayacapán and Ajijic. Area medical facilities include clinics offering 24/7 emergency services, ambulance, full laboratory services, HMOs, and a new full-service hospital, part of the Seguro Popular system, in Jocotepec, right on the lake. If you have an opportunity to visit the area, we recommend that you also visit any of the listed below. See also Access Lake Chapala review of local clinics:
- Chapala Med
- Hospital Clinica Ajijic
- Grupo Medico
- Lakeside Medical Group
- Maskaras Clinic
- Medijic Clinic
There are a number of excellent primary care physicians in the Lakeside area and you will want to look for the physician that can best meet your particular needs. Your primary physician will recommend you to the appropriate specialist/hospital when necessary.
Medical Costs for Private Physicians
Affordable medical costs are typical of Mexico, but not entirely universal. Some upscale areas, for example Los Cabos in Baja Sur, have higher prices. But in the Lake Chapala area, you will probably pay not much more that $500 pesos MX (about $25-30 USD) for a visit to a general practitioner, and typically less than twice that for a specialist. The truth is that most who enter the medical profession in Mexico don’t do it because they are seduced by a six-figure salary. But then, they don’t leave medical school with a huge debt either.
“When I was on the operating table being prepped for the pelvic surgery, I looked over and the surgeon was standing to the side, laughing and joking with a big smile on his face. I thought, ‘this guy likes what he does and he is good at it.’ I was right.”
Most doctors with private practices in Mexico don’t hire as many people because they aren’t doing all the lab tests in the office (typically they are done at a nearby lab), nor dealing with pharmacies and pharmaceutical salespeople, nor billing insurance companies nor paying outrageous sums for malpractice insurance. Most doctors own their own practices and do not have to share a slice of the pie with PPO or HMO shareholders like they do in the USA. Nor is their judgment about what’s best for the patient being scrutinized by a third party.
The Pay-as-You-Go Option
The cost of medical care in Mexico is surprisingly low compared to prices in the USA, even when a patient is paying out of pocket (which some opt to do). They are low enough that many people in the US and Canada travel to Mexico for medical and dental care, especially those who live in the six states bordering the USA.
A frequent comment you will hear about the cost is that the whole bill in Mexico is about what they were paying for the co-pay in the USA. So, the pay-as-you-go option, (also known as “self insurance”) where people pay for their own medical costs out of pocket—is fairly common with expats—although that can get expensive if major surgery or lengthy hospitalization is required. Here is an example:
“Started at Ajijic Clinic. They popped me into a cab and sent me to Guad [Guadalajara]. Don’t remember the hospital (I had been here less than a week). They popped in a stent, kept me 3-4 days and followed up at Ajijic Clinic. Cost was about $6800 US (this was 9 years ago). I have 4-5 stents. Last stent in NM [New Mexico] cost me $7800 out of pocket with insurance (was paying $1100 a month for the insurance)”
Traditional Medical Insurance
For those in relatively good health, private medical or hospitalization insurance obtained through an insurance agent or through employment, may be an option. However, many clinics and small hospitals in Mexico don’t take an insurance assignment of benefits or bill insurance companies. They expect payment in cash at the time of service. Even if they don’t accept your insurance, you may be able to file your own claims. Policies vary in their requirements, but it will undoubtedly require an itemized bill and that may need to be translated.
Increasingly there are medical practices and clinics that do accept insurance, although as with all medical insurance, you need to follow the guidelines. For example, our highly recommended Chapala Med, a medical services facility offering a wide range of care options in Ajijic and Guadalajara and overseen by Focus on Mexico’s medical expert, Dr. Santiago Hernandez, accepts insurance from the following:
- Best Doctors
- US Veterans Administration Insurance
- WEA Insurance and
- HCU Insurance. Their guidelines specify that they accept US and Canadian insurance for major medical (hospitalization) and catastrophic events, but that prior approval is required.
A local HMO may also be an option. But like all HMOs, check with your carrier first to find out if they are “in plan” just as you would in the USA.
“About 3 years ago, I was diagnosed with a cervical disc herniation that caused a great deal of pain and discomfort. . . . My visits cost me a co-pay of $100 pesos [approx. $7 USD]. All of my tests, MRI, cat scans, xrays, blood work, etc., were covered by my insurance and I have never paid anything… The surgery was a success. I was there for 3 days. To this day, I am pain-free and have full range of motion and use of my neck. The staff at the hospital were great. Most of the nurses spoke little English, but I speak fluent Spanish. My surgeon spoke fluent English. The hospital was clean and modern.”
The Mexican Public System
Mexico has made a remarkable commitment to its citizens: to provide universal healthcare. This amazing promise is being implemented through two different national programs: IMSS and Seguro Popular.
Mexico’s initial national program, IMSS, covers working people and their families and is paid, in part, by employers. This program is also available to foreign residents on a voluntary (self-paid) basis. While application requires a number of steps, full coverage doesn’t begin for two years, and it does not cover most pre-existing conditions, the cost is modest.
IMSS is a viable solution for some expats, especially those living in the large urban areas of Mexico. However, there is no IMSS hospital in the Lake Chapala area. So, while the coverage can still be obtained, problems can arise because of the lack of proximity.
“I was already paying for IMSS and had been enrolled long enough that my cancer treatment was covered. However, I would have to go to Hospital 180 in Tlajomulco, an hour away. I would have to go there for blood work, xrays, ultrasounds and appointments with various doctors who had to sign off on my results in order for my urologist to do a cystoscopy. I never could get more than one appointment on any given day, meaning I had to go back several times for a single procedure.”
Seguro Popular is a program that was designed to cover those who were either unemployed, or those who were self employed such as farmers and shopkeepers with an emphasis on coverage for the poor and rural. This program too is open to foreign residents. The cost is based on a sliding scale based on a simple interview and some modest payment is required for some procedures.
With Seguro Popular there are no age limits and pre-existing conditions are covered. However, coverage is not entirely comprehensive. It is based on an extensive and ever-expanding menu of covered treatments, procedures and medicines. And while there are challenges dealing with the bureaucracy (English is not spoken so translation help may be required), and the facilities are minimalistic (no private rooms, no phones, no televisions, no call buttons, etc.) many expats are satisfied with the medical treatment. For those living in the Lake Chapala area there is a new full-service hospital run by the Serguro Popular system in Jocotepec, right on the lake.
“I then signed up for Seguro Popular. . . . My first experience with SP was about a month ago. From this one experience I feel the staff at Hospital Central were very caring.”
There is More to Care Than Money
Americans in particular, who have had to deal with an economy where medical care is wildly expensive, (In the last 20 years, medical has gone from about 5% of the GDP to almost 20% of the GDP), dealing with the financial aspect of care is understandably a top priority. But it is important to remember that medical practice in Mexico is not only less expensive, it is different in other ways as well.
Medical care in Mexico today may remind you of an earlier period in your own life when a doctor took the time to actually sit down and listen to you. In those days a doctor used careful observation, palpation (tapping the body and listening) and experience to make a diagnosis using less “machine” medicine.
“I much prefer the Mexico system. In the US, they rely on equipment, in Mexico, they rely on people. Nursing is much better in Mexico. Care is much better in Mexico, much more personal. You push a call button, someone shows up within a minute.”
Up until the 1960s, your doctor might actually visit your home to treat you if you were sick. Many doctors in Mexico still make house calls for their regular patients. When do you recall a doctor who would do this?
“The doctor offered to let me stay overnight free when he found out I lived alone. When I refused (I hate hospitals) he took me home, stopped by the pharmacy and got some antibiotics, and made sure I got in OK.”
“Somewhere I have a few cards with the Drs. names and phone numbers. Everyone told me if I had problems or questions to call any hour. I have cousins that are doctors and I don’t have their numbers, just their service’s numbers.”
While not perfect (no place is), perhaps you understand now why most expats in Mexico become fans of their doctors and the care that they receive. Medical care in Mexico is good to excellent, but the heart with which it is delivered is simply extraordinary.
Come to a Focus On Mexico 6-Day Learning Adventure and get more in-depth experience on Mexico’s medical system from our expert speaker, Dr. Santiago Hernandez of ChapalaMed…not to mention speakers on Cost of Living, renting vs. buying, Lifestyle at Lakeside, Immigration, Assisted Living, income tax and much more! Check it out at http://www.focusonmexico.com/focus-6-day-program
By Monica Rix Paxson with additional content provided by Bette Brazel, Focus on Mexico Content Manager.
About the Author
Monica Rix Paxson is a medical researcher and the author of The English Speaker’s Guide to Medical Care in Mexico. Her science writing has received a number of awards and she has appeared on the BBC, CBS This Morning, Good Morning America, CNN and in the LA Times.