Belize versus Mahahual, Mexico Part 5

CostaMed clinic, near port in Mahahual.

CostaMed clinic, near port in Mahahual.

I have been writing a series of articles lately comparing living in Belize compared to living in Mahahual, Mexico. Belize is touted on the internet and in magazines as the perfect place to live or retire for ExPats from USA, Canada, and Europe. Today I am going to compare medical and health care in Belize and Mexico. I wrote a post last week about all of the people from the USA that are now enrolled in Mexico’s universal health coverage, and it was the most read post or article I have ever written on this blog. The difference in health care between Belize and Mexico is staggering. Mexico out distances Belize in every aspect of medical and health care. It speaks for itself when expats leave Belize and come to Mexico to get quality health care.

HEALTH CARE IN BELIZE
But no matter what you may have heard before from sources touting the good life in Belize, be aware that medical care in Belize does not meet the same standards as medical care in North America, Mexico or the European Union. With a population of a little over 300,000, with more than half living in poverty, the economics are simply not there for the level of medical care you may be accustomed to in your home country. There is no level one trauma center in the country. The U.S. embassy and other foreign missions recommend that foreign nationals verify their medical coverage, especially catastrophic medical coverage including the cost of medical evacuation, before visiting or taking up residence in Belize.

Belizeans acknowledge, however, that it will take many years before the country’s health care system is on the same level with medical treatment in the neighboring countries of Mexico and Guatemala.

If you’re considering a visit or a move to Belize, rest assured that most minor ailments can be treated quickly—and cheaply—at doctor’s offices and clinics that can be found in all but a few remote areas. People who suffer from serious conditions can be taken to private clinics such as Belize Medical Associates (website: http://www.belizemedical.com) or Belize Health Care Partners (website: http://belizehealthcare.com). Both of these facilities offer excellent services and costs are still very reasonable. Belize does have a number of public hospitals but most expats prefer to use the private clinics.

But since all these facilities lack the quality care of hospitals in the U.S. and neighboring countries, some many expats leave Belize for more complicated types of medical treatment. Many American retirees, for instance, return home for a few days whenever they want to take advantage of Medicare. Some expats also go to Chetumal and Merida, just north of the border in the Mexican state of Yucatán, and to Guatemala City and Antigua in Guatemala.

Expats in Belize also have the option of returning to the U.S. for health care and, in cases of emergency, to rely on evacuation coverage provided by an international health insurance policy. Evacuation coverage is particularly important because an ambulance flight can easily cost $15,000. If you’re prone to health problems, you should consider this option. Information on medical services is available from the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan, Tel +(1)501-227-7161, though the embassy staff doesn’t recommend doctors.

Belize City offers the highest level of medical care in the country due of course to the large population and client base, close to 100,000 taking into account suburban areas such as Vista Del Mar, Ladyville and Ambergris Caye. Several dental and private medical, lab and diagnostic facilities are available in this urban center. Most any serious medical problems can be treated at Belize’s main referral hospital, the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (Princess Margaret Drive, Tel. 501-223-1548).

This is a modern public hospital but plagued by equipment problems,supply shortages, and management problems. Hardly a month goes by with stories such as improper treatment, wrong diagnosis, bodies improperly stored and so on. Being a government owned and operated facility this is to be expected. Horror stories are common, as with the Norfolk police chief who nearly died in Belize after contracting flu-like symptoms. But it is hard to beat the rates, under USD $50. per day for a hospital room compared to $500 a day at a local private hospital.

The public hospitals provide basic medical specialties: internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics and OB-GYN. Karl Heusner Memorial also provides neurology, ENT, physiotherapy, orthopedic surgery and several other services. The quality of these hospitals varies considerably. Karl Heusner Memorial – named after a prominent Belize City German physician in colonial era Belize opened in 1997 and has modern equipment, such as a CAT-scan, though some Belizeans and expats complain that even this hospital is chronically short of supplies, and the imaging equipment is often non functional. It is not uncommon for patients at this main referral hospital to be told they need to do certain lab tests at a private facility as the hospital laboratory has run out of a reagent or a piece of equipment is non functional. Adding to the KHMH’s woes is a politically controlled board of directors and the load it must handle from the high crime rate in Belize City.

The Corozal Town Hospital has become a joke of a clinic and most residents in the area cross the border to seek medical attention at a Mexican government or private health care facility.

The ADO Bus from Mexico now has daily runs between Belize, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen and Merida. The latter is referred to as the “hospital run”. Merida in the Yucatan is a tier one  medical center with several specialist hospitals catering to the medical needs of most of Central America.

The Belize government has put forth the idea of developing Belize as a medical tourism center, offering services such as heart angioplasty, joint replacement surgery, pacemaker battery replacement and even heart surgery. To date limited procedures have been carried out at the government’s K.H.M.H hospital in Belize city under the guidance of visiting medical specialists from the U.S. But the fact is that medical care at Belize medical institutions owned and operated by the government are not held in high regard by Belizeans.

Increasingly Belizeans and expats living in Belize, use neighboring Mexico and Guatemala for specialized treatment. On one forum, one expat wrote:

“When I was in Belize recently, I talked with a fellow who had planned to go to Miami, Florida, for a hip replacement (he’s already had two knee replacements and one do-over in Miami.) But he ended up having it done in Mérida, Yucatan Mexico, for around USD $12,000. inclusive of hospital, surgeon fees, hotels, travel, etc. instead of more than USD $50,000 in Miami. Six weeks out from the surgery he is walking a little on his own and is very pleased with the results.”

In my personal experience with health care in Belize, I can only talk about Corozal and the hospital there. I had urinary tract infection and I had to go to the Corozal hospital for medical care. There was a Cuban doctor at the hospital, so I was explaining to her in Spanish (She spoke no English), what my problem was, and she got confused and thought I was explaining to her I had some kind of STD (sexually transmitted disease). She starts pulling some long needle to stick me with in my private areas, so I said no, and ran out in the hallway and got the woman who came with me to the hospital to come into the office and explain to the doctor what I was trying to say (the woman with me was fluent in Spanish). Well after the woman explained my condition to the doctor they both laughed and thought it was funny, and the doctor prescribed me some anti-biotics and I should get some vitamin B-12 shots over the next week to help my condition. The doctor gave me my first B-12 shot and told me to come back every other day for a week to get B-12 shots. Well the next time I went back to get my shot, there was a nice older nurse there and she gave me my next shot and everything was good. I should have stopped there, because the next time I went in to get my shot there was a male nurse there, and something about him did not look right. I thought about turning around and coming back the next day, but I thought to myself I am here why not. Big mistake, this guy gave me my B-12 shot in the butt, and I swear I could not walk for 3 days, I never went back for my other shots.

I have also noticed that the Corozal Town hospital reminds me of the hospitals I used to go to in the 1960s when I lived on USA Army bases in Germany, not that modern. Most of the expats I knew in Corozal went to a private clinic run by a church group from the USA.

You can get most prescription drugs in Belize over the counter without a prescription, and most are cheaper than the USA. In fact they sell Valium, Prozac, Zanax, and all the other mood altering drugs and anti-depressants over the counter, which you can’t get in Mexico. So if you are a pill-popper and like Valium and things like that, Belize is not so bad. I met a lot of expats in Belize that took advantage of this, and took these all the time.

So as you can see, if you are interested in health care as a reason where you are considering to live or retire on the Caribbean, you might want to think twice about Belize. As you have read above, health care in Belize is mediocre at best, and in some places quite primitive.

Tomorrow I will continue with health care in Mexico, and the advantages versus Belize, which there are many.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any comments or experiences you would like to share, feel free to comment.
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina

3 thoughts on “Belize versus Mahahual, Mexico Part 5

  1. kristina nadreau says:

    Stewart Your remarks comparing health care seem accurate to me with respect to Belize. No trauma care, and generally inferior. I have formed a relationship with Dr. Vasquez who did his residency in Florida & I find him to be quite good. I would not allow the Cubans near me. My husband is an MD, Dc and I am a DVM who worked over 20 years in the human medical device field. We are sophisticated consumers of medical services and products. And we advocate for each other.

    About the availability of pharmaceuticals. Buying medications over the counter is much less expensive than having to first get a prescription from a local physician. Most expats come from countries where they have prescriptions for medications, know what to take and how much thus buying directly from a pharmacist in Belize is so much easier and less expensive. This is an advantage. Those people that abuse mood altering drugs are adults and if they kill themselves, so be it. There is no reason that 93% of patients should be penalized because 7% of the population is abusing medications and other drugs like alcohol, etc. The FDA in the USA is responsible for perpetuating the myth that that all patients should be penalized by the abuse of a few. Part of the miserably failed “war on drugs”. The government as nanny is an incredible waste of resources. At this time, it is possible to go to Guatemala to buy medications that are not available in Belize. We had a friend visit who had end stage cancer and needed pain relief. We found that if he ran out of his fentanyl patches or oxycontin or needed morphine, it would take a month for us to get him what he needed from a physician in Corozal. Knowing the limitations of the Corozal hospital, we would not take him there.

    Also, it seems to be popular for people to get vitamin B shots here. there is no data that this is useful in any condition except certain deficiencies which are RARE. Bush medicine, that generally does little or no harm but also has no benefit.

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