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My experience with the private medical system in Costa Rica

Isabelle Emond

I am Canadian from Quebec, accustomed to a medical system with poor service. In Quebec, it is not uncommon to wait 2-3 years on a waiting list for an appointment or surgery, even if it’s something serious.  It’s never important enough to have a quick appointment unless you are just about to die. I am used to never getting a full diagnostic because they usually don’t find what you have. Why? not because the doctors are unqualified... no, it's because they are too busy! They see you once, give you some recommendations to get better. They see you a second time for the same condition and then give you some pills. Then they see you a third time if you insist and there’s a good chance they will diagnose you with being overstressed and will prescribe anti-depressants.  "It’s all in your mind" as they say, but they never send you for further test in case it would really be physical - i.e. scans, MRI, blood test, etc. If you ever get to have a test of any kind, even for a simple blood test, you’ll have your results in the next 30 days. In the meantime, hopefully, you will make it. Public system... what else can they do? They are short in staff and government keeps cutting in their budget! 

I moved in Costa Rica in 2012. Started taking care of myself a little bit more. I was 39 years old back then and had more time than before, living in a laid-back atmosphere. I worked a lot but never like I did back in Canada.

You know, that crazy life you have in North America and Europe where you work 70-hour week? Not anymore! We do our 40-50 hours and have an extra 20-25 hours to enjoy life. A year after we moved, I decided to go for a full blood test in a private hospital in San Jose, Cima Hospital. As simple as it is, you show up, ask for a blood test, choose the ones you want, and have it. First time in my life that I had a full blood test checkup made. You pay and within 10 min, you are already with the nurse. I was amazed! I chose the complete list of whatever tests were available, paid $570- and got it done with the results within a morning. I was all set, happy to hear that I was top shape!

A few months ago, I decided to have a visit to the doctor, an annual checkup. While being there and because I had some digestion issues, I saw Dr. Vargas at San Rafael Hospital in Liberia, a gastroenterologist. He recommended doing a colonoscopy among other tests. “I can’t believe that you never had one in your life yet, you are 42! it’s always good to have it done once after you are 40. You also should go for an ultrasound, checking your organs, it’s in the same building”. So a few days after, I am on the table, having my ultrasounds and first colonoscopy. They discovered some polyps in my stomach that they removed, nothing to worry about, and an 8mm stone in the gallbladder. Yep, a stone that can lead to infection, inflammation, pancreatitis. Recommendations: removal of gallbladder while I am young and healthy. I went to see another doctor in a different hospital for a second opinion, same.

I took a few weeks to think about that and… decided to go ahead. I met the surgeon, Dr. Delgado Vidoña of San Rafael Hospital to talk about the pros and cons and arrange the surgery. I live in Tamarindo, 45 min from Liberia hospitals so it was convenient to do it close to our home, even if my private insurance were going to cover anywhere I’d wanted to go around the world. Five days after my appointment with the surgeon, I was setup for my surgery. On April 1st, 2017 at 1h00 pm, I passed at the accounting department to sign all kind of papers they required prior to the surgery, as “I won’t sue you if I die”, “I am willing to have the surgery”, “I understand the risks”… etc. Total cost of surgery: US$ 5,000.00, I had to pay 25% deductible so paid my US$ 1,250.00 and the hospital claimed the rest with the insurance company. At 2h00 pm, they brought me to my private room, and from there they picked me up 60 min later for the surgery. The room was very modest but functional, and I had the TV with cable (which I didn’t even watch cause I was on morphine!) 

I woke up a few hours later in the surgery room, drugged but all good! I even asked to see my removed gallbladder, they showed me a black ugly thing in a glass jar - yuck. Went back to my room, and slept, slept, slept and slept! A nurse came to wake me up every few hours to take my pressure, my temperature, to give me some pain killers. No food, no drink. I left the hospital the morning after with my husband and went home with a bunch of painkillers and restrictions on fat food for one month. It hurt for the first 3-5 days but I’ve seen worse, I am a mom! A week after the surgery, I saw the surgeon and he removed the stitches. He was happy with his work and gave me the OK to go back to a regular diet, adding that Whisky would be good for me. Aye…. (I prefer wine so I would stay quiet!) They also made a biopsy of my gallbladder and I got the results at that appointment. He also gave me his cell phone number so we can talk or text anytime if I have a question or any concern. THAT would never happen in Canada, I was amazed!

It’s been 3 weeks today and so far so good! I am not 100% yet but definitely better and it should be soon that I am back to my normal activities (re-drink wine, yoga, fiestas with friends, etc!). The surgeon and his team made a great job and I am very happy with the results! Here are my comments and recommendations for those who would like to have a surgery in Costa Rica, especially in the Guanacaste area. 

  • Remember that it is Central America. We have amazing surgeons and doctors but don’t expect to be served in a Hilton. It is clean but modest. I haven't visit Cima in San Jose so maybe it's different, I cannot confirm.

  • The service I got before and after the surgery was ok but not top notch. Be ready, you might have to be patient because they are not as organized as in the States or Canada. They might call you to cancel the appointment and forget to reschedule. They might forget to tell you about a special diet, or other details of your surgery. They also might forget to tell you that you have to be on an empty stomach for your surgery, or whatever else they would forget or omit to mention. In North America, they will give you a bunch of paper with information, not here.

  • Ask a lot of questions, and require a surgeon or doctor that speaks your language. I have been served in English from A to Z. The receptionist that has booked my appointments used what’s app so we have been texting all along, that was very helpful.

  • Make your research on the web to find out what your options are. Talk about those options with the doctor or surgeon to see what he thinks of it.

  • If you don’t have a good feeling or don’t get along with the specialist, visit another hospital and ask for a second or third opinion.

  • If you don’t have a private insurance, shop your surgery! The prices vary from a place to another.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me! I’ll be happy to refer you and help you finding the right place! Isabelle Emond, Owner/Broker