Mexico Guide – Health
Healthcare in Mexico
A fragmented three tier system
Mexican healthcare is based on a three tier system: a public national healthcare system for the employed, a basic coverage for unemployed Mexicans and a private system, which is usually excellent but only available to those who can afford it.
While all Mexicans formally have access to some form of basic healthcare, there are great disparities in quality and access. Coverage in Mexico is mainly based on employment status:
- A social security system covers employees both of the public and the private sector. Expats who work for Mexican companies automatically qualify for coverage by the IMSS (Mexican Social Security Institute). Employees contribute part of their salary to fund this system.
- The unemployed are covered by a system run by the Ministry of Health.
- The third strand of coverage is based on a private insurance system.
A divided system
Each system maintains its own network of hospitals, doctors, pharmacies and health related centers, which cannot be accessed by those belonging to another system. This fragmented system leads to serious issues affecting the quality of care of the patients. The unemployed experience the lowest level of care, while the national security system varies between high quality care to less consistent care, especially in rural areas.
The private system provides the highest level of care. Private hospitals in Mexico attract large numbers of people, especially from the neighboring United States, who wish to access the top quality healthcare at a considerably lower price than in their home countries. Care in this system needs to be paid for by acquiring health insurance. If you are sufficiently covered you can get high-quality treatment in all major Mexican cities. Doctors are usually well-qualified and many of them speak English. Facilities and equipment in private clinics are up to date and the service is excellent.
Expats and insurance
If you move to Mexico you should make sure that you have sufficient insurance cover for the treatments you might need during your stay. Most foreigners (and most Mexicans who can afford it) prefer to take out a private health insurance policy. Expats looking for admittance to a private hospital need to check whether foreign insurance is accepted.
If you do not have private health insurance or enough funds available to be admitted in one of the private hospitals, in an emergency you might end up in overcrowded hospitals and might have to wait for a very long time if you need a special treatment. Keep all of this in mind when planning your trip to Mexico, and make sure you are covered for all eventualities.
Public and private health insurance in Mexico
Mexico has a social security system which covers basic health treatments and also applies to foreigners with a fully immigrated residency status. However, even if you are covered by social security, you might want to take out additional private health insurance as public treatment is relatively basic.
Mexico does not have any joint healthcare arrangements with other countries, nor is there any ‘free’ medical treatment available. If you move to Mexico you have to make sure that you are covered either by private insurance or through the Mexican social security system.
The Mexican social security system
The Mexican social security system goes by the name of the Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social or just IMSS. The IMSS covers both health treatments and salary payments in case of illness or accidents. Employees of Mexican companies have to pay a part of their salary to the IMSS, even if they take out a private health insurance as well.
Health treatment through the IMSS is free at the point of delivery, with the level of care depending on the area you live in. Big cities generally have a wider range of treatments, but also higher demand and long waiting lists. In rural areas health institutions are faced with less demand, but only offer a (sometimes very!) limited range of treatments.
Be aware that the social security level of healthcare is not what you are used to in most industrialised countries. Costly and long-term treatments are often not covered by the system, so many Mexicans and most foreigners prefer to take out private health insurance as well if they can. If you are not covered by the IMSS, you need to get a private health insurance anyway.
Private health insurance for Mexico
Mexico has a well developed private health insurance market, with many national and international providers to choose from.
Levels of coverage and premiums vary greatly, so shop around and compare carefully. Besides the level of coverage the cost of your private health insurance in Mexico will also depend on your age, your health conditions and other risk factors.
Many large companies provide private healthcare plans as part of their employees’ benefits. Health insurance costs have risen significantly in Mexico in recent years, so company health insurance plans are often a major bonus.
If you do not get a health insurance policy through your company you will have to take out private insurance yourself.
Hospitals and clinics
Public and private hospitals in Mexico
Mexico’s hospital system includes both public hospitals and private clinics. Treatment in Mexico’s public hospitals can be very basic and subject to long waiting lists. Private clinics in Mexico, however, offer the latest technology and equipment, with exceptionally well-trained staff.
Mexico’s best hospitals and clinics are in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey, so you might have to go there if you need a very specialised treatment. You can get a list of hospitals from your insurance company or your consulate.
Public hospitals in Mexico
Public hospitals in Mexico might not be your first choice if you need an important or complicated treatment. Though doctors and nurses in public hospitals are well-trained, resources and especially equipment are often limited, and there can be very long (sometimes too long) waiting lists for specialist treatment. If your treatment requires you to stay in hospital overnight, your room and living conditions might well be below your comfort zone.
To visit a public hospital in Mexico you will need social security (IMSS) or you will have to pay for yourself (if you are privately insured you can obviously ask your insurance company for reimbursement afterwards).
Private hospitals and clinics in Mexico
Mexico has a range of excellent private hospitals and clinics, especially in the bigger cities. Medical equipment is up-to-date, doctors and nurses are very well trained (often in the US), and the general patient-care is extremely service-oriented. Many private clinics (especially in tourist areas) have multilingual staff that can communicate at least in English.
However this quality comes at a price: private hospitals in Mexico are extremely expensive (though not as expensive as in the US and some Western European countries). To get admitted to a private hospital you will need proof of private health insurance or proof that you will be able to pay the treatment yourself (like a deposit or credit card with a very high coverage).
Even if you have private insurance, some private hospitals in Mexico require a credit card until they have verified the level of coverage provided by your insurer. Before you leave the hospital, all bills have to be paid. This can even mean that you will have to spend some ‘extra’ (unnecessary) days in the hospital until the payment is cleared.
Doctors and dentists
Qualifications and fees
Doctors in Mexico are usually well-trained and many of them speak good English. Ask your embassy or insurance company for a list of English-speaking doctors.
Most independent doctors do not work through the Mexican social security system, so you will have to pay them privately and get your money reimbursed if you are covered by a private insurance company. Fees are usually lower than in the US or Western Europe, although some highly trained specialists might charge premium fees. If you do not have a private insurance policy and need treatment through the social security system (IMSS), you will probably have to visit a public hospital.
Dentists in Mexico
Just like doctors, dentists in Mexico are well-trained and offer excellent treatment. Dental treatment in Mexico only costs a fraction of similar treatments in the US or other Western countries, which is the reason why many US-Americans travel to Mexico for dentistry work. You might get a list of dentists from your insurance company, or alternatively ask local people for recommendations.
Opticians in Mexico
Most opticians in Mexico are franchise chains, but you will also find some well-stocked independent opticians. Many opticians offer free eye examinations provided you buy from them afterwards. Mexican opticians offer a large choice of glasses and frames, and contact lenses are also widely available. If you are looking for laser eye treatment in Mexico your best choice would probably be a private clinic.
How to get medication in Mexico
Every small town in Mexico has at least one pharmacy, and in most cities you will always find a 24-hour pharmacy nearby.
Prices of medication in Mexico
Medication in Mexico is a lot cheaper than in the US or other Western countries (even for international brands), which is the reason why many US-citizens prefer to buy their medication across the border. New chains of ‘discount pharmacies’ (farmacias de ahoro) also offer generic substitutes for brand medications at even lower prices. Although most of these generic drugs are reliable, prices are often so low that you still might want to buy your favoured brand anyway.
Prescription drugs in Mexico
In theory many drugs in Mexico are handed out on prescription only. In reality, however, these regulations are often not enforced and you will be able to get many drugs ‘over the counter’ that you would only get upon prescription in other countries (i.e. antibiotics and strong pain killers). Whether you really want to use these hard drugs without medical recommendation is of course another matter. Most insurance companies will only reimburse medications that have been prescribed by a doctor.
What to do
In the event of an emergency, dial the emergency number 060 to ask for the police, an ambulance or the fire brigade.
In addition to national emergency numbers many emergency services also have local numbers, so try to get familiar with these numbers before you need them. For medical emergencies your insurance company might also have their own emergency number, which might come in handy if you want to be transferred directly to a clinic they work with. Some insurance companies also run English-speaking emergency numbers.
If you can still walk you can also visit a hospital’s emergency department directly. Bring proof of your social security (for public hospitals) or of your private health insurance (for private hospitals) as there is no ‘free treatment’ in Mexico – not even in emergencies.