Panama is undergoing a remarkable boom in new health care infrastructure, driven by an ever-growing health sector that focuses on high-quality services and patient care. Supplementing this growth is an increased spending in medical tourism, a rising rate of immigration and a construction boom in the residential and commercial sectors. With all the makings of a growing metropolis, growing traffic and massive expansion towards the city outskirts, Panama’s health sector answers the call for action in bringing quality health care to its growing population and visitors where needed the most.
In the past couple of years, companies in the construction industry have invested in the development of real estate destined to serve as comprehensive health care facilities. Their plan responds to the current needs of a local and foreign population eager to have access to good quality and timely health services. Panama’s position as a health care travel destination also underlines the importance of having more facilities to serve international patients comfortably and fittingly.
A quick survey of current projects reveals that in the next three years, Panama city will have four new medical conglomerates: two in the city core and two in its outskirts. There will also be new clinics and a hotel intended for patients only. Added to this, numerous renovations and extensions have been undertaken by well-established and prominent medical centers, hospitals and clinics in the country. Such is the case of the Hospital Nacional’s new medical offices; the Clínica Hospital San Fernando’s new maternity ward; and the Centro Médico Paitilla’s new MRI room, the most state of the art in Panama and Central America.
HealthPanama.com sat down with representatives from the companies developing these medical conglomerates, as well as with experts from the medical tourism industry, in order to discuss the reasons behind this health care boom, their objectives and projections.
The Need To Keep Up
Panama’s construction industry continues to grow at high speed. Shopping malls, offices and housing developments are part of the boom generated by the rapid population growth of both, nationals and newcomers, the latter group having significantly increased in the last few years.
“This population growth has not only boosted the construction sector, but also the health care sector. There are more and more people living in the outskirts of Panama city who need to make long journeys in order to access health services currently offered only in the city; an area where such demand has already increased due to its population density and those arriving for Medical Tourism purposes” says gynaecologist Konstantinos Tserotas, medical director of MedicalPan, the top company in Panama dedicated to quality care for international patients.
According to Tserotas, this creates the need for new health care infrastructure that should be up and running within 2 to 3 years. This is why established hospitals and clinics with years of existence in the national market have been expanding their facilities, while private companies are opting to develop medical offices and comprehensive medical centers.
“The current outlook makes it important to create new care facilities in areas where there were none, as well as in areas where, nowadays, due to growth and development, their populations would not travel far in order to receive primary care. This scenario also encourages doctors to diversify and offer their services from different locations” says Tserotas.
Dr. Tserotas points out how today Medical Tourism also plays a key role behind these needs. “We require new, more specialized medical facilities, hospital clinics and even hotels especially designed to serve the needs of international patients. A good example of such project is The Panama Clinic, a medical complex with medical offices, a hospital clinic and a specialized hotel”
The director of MedicalPan estimates that while the construction of medical offices may reach surpass local requirements at the moment, it is necessary to prepare for the immediate future.
“There’s no shopping spree for health care providers. We can’t hire a large number of doctors just to serve these centers or fill the new medical offices. Medicine is a long-winded career. You need 14 years to be a neurologist and 18 to be a clinical oncologist, to mention a couple. Perhaps these new facilities may be filled by doctors who already have practices in other centers or who would partner with each other in other to serve different areas of the city” says Tserotas.
The Public Sector Also Responds
Tserotas also says that this health care boom not only concerns the private sector, but also the public one. There are more and more foreign nationals, with permanent residence in Panama, who require the health services offered by the Caja de Seguro Social (Social security), the National Oncology Institute and the Health Ministry, among others.
Although growth in the public sector does not match that of the private sector, projects of great magnitude have been launched to offer health care services to more people in the near feature
In May of 2012, work began in the construction of the Ciudad Hospitalaria de Panamá (Panama’s Hospital City), an area covering over 78 Acres. Fifty-four percent of its 1st phase has been completed, while the 2nd phase has already been started, according to the project’s website http://www.css.gob.pa/pro-ciudadhospitalaria.html. This project is designed to meet a 5% annual increase in demand of specialized care by new users of the Caja de Seguro Social (Social security).
According to the data referenced above and taking into account current trends, Panama’s Hospital City will have provided approximately 937,528 specialized consultations by the year 2030.
This past September 7, president Juan Carlos Varela announced the move of the National Oncology Institute to Panama’s Hospital City within two years. This will offer more adequately, and to a greater number of patients, the oncological services of the institution. The new location will have 100 additional beds, effectively increasing its capacity to 250 inpatients.
The City As Central Axis
There is no doubt that Panama City is, and will continue to be, the central axis for Medical Tourism in the country. This is due to many factors, which include an advantageous location for easy access and transportation; the quality and cost of products, medical and health services; as well as access to appropriate lodging that matches these services.
This is why developers such as SBA Group have decided to venture in the health sector as a new niche market.
SBA Group’s Panama Medical Center (PMC) project, for instance, will provide more than 86,000 square feet of medical real estate in a centric area, known as a medical district (Justo Arosemena St and 43rd); this is due to neighbouring facilities, such as Hospital Nacional, Hospital del Niño and Hospital Santo Tomas, among other health care centers.
With a nearby subway station, PMC will have a fourteen story multilevel parking (under and above ground), six high capacity elevators and two emergency staircases that will offer doctors and patients the best possible access.
The project will include pharmacy, laboratories, cafeteria and a high-quality imaging laboratory. With medical centers being their main assets, PMC will be able to offer an ambulatory surgical center with the latest cutting edge technologies, as well as modules for different medical specialties. All these characteristics are considered essential for the Panamanian market by the developer.
PMC will not only be a building offering comfortable medical facilities. It is important to mention the architectural and aesthetical aspects of the project, which will feature an imposing glass façade and interior finishes of the highest quality, never before seen in Panama.
“At the moment we have a high level of product due to the number of commercial developments currently underway or about to start. There is more availability in the market at the moment as demand climbs to meet it. However, this is not really a concern as we are confident about the gradual growth of the country,” says SBA Group developer Gabriel Bassan, when referring to the commercial market in Panama.
“We estimate that in three years the country will be balanced in terms of commercial real estate and demand will surge again,” he adds.
With respect to the health market, specifically regarding infrastructure, Bassan believes that there is still a way to go. “We have seen the investment on expansion and improvements that private institutions have done in the past decade, which the country certainly benefits from. Now, however, there are hybrid projects that do not necessarily provide what the market is looking for”.
He considers that having a medical center within a shopping mall has its limitations as data has shown that both doctors and patients prefer their facilities separate from commercial or residential activities. PMC offers precisely that: all facilities are exclusive to the Medical Center.
For Bassan there is no risk in building medical facilities. It is simply a response to a need that must be heeded. He indicates that Panamanians and foreigners, as well as practitioners and patients, deserve facilities in accordance with the growth and trends of the country. “This means being at the forefront in Latin America, not only in terms of services, but also aesthetics, just as our commercial real estate currently is.”
Asked about how space in PMC will be offered to the health market in general, the developer responded emphatically that it is not a project aimed at business investment.
“We have received many investment offers; however, we reserve the right to sell only to doctors or students in process of becoming doctors. The idea is for them to control their market and to eliminate speculation,” says Bassan.
SBA Group plans to deliver the 15 million dollar PMC project in the middle of 2018.
In Bassan’s view, the current growth in Panama’s health care industry is thanks to the private institutions that have worked together with doctors in order to have hospitals, offices, surgical centers and cutting edge services.
“Panama as a medical destination is something that is occurring in recent years, helped by that growth in the health sector. That projection will grow even more. Panama is the hub of the Americas and patients from all around us will want to receive care from our leading doctors. However, for that we need facilities that can go hand in hand with our doctors” highlights Bassan.
Pushing the City Outskirts
More and more residential projects are being built in the outskirts of the city. Areas such as Panama Este and Panama Oeste have middle class and higher middle class neighbourhoods, as well as shopping malls, small and medium businesses. These areas have ceased to be known as bedroom neighbourhoods.
Medical offices are currently being built in areas such as Brisas del Golf and Costa del Este, where there is an important growth in population, as well as commercial and business activities.
The Centro Médico del Este, a pillar of the TownCenter Costa del Este development, could become the new center of activity in Panama. It consists of three towers of seven stories for medical offices and specialized clinics, designed for the comfort of both patients and doctors who choose this as their health care center.
On the first floor, local patients will find a primary care ward, created to offer quick access and complementary clinical services.
Easily accessible, the Centro Médico Costa del Este offers a 4,000 car parking facility, including 2,500 indoor spots. These have quick and easy access to the lobby area, from where offices are reached via high-speed elevators.
The aim of this center is to foster a personalized and comprehensive care of patients. This encompasses prevention, diagnostic, treatment, a results-oriented approach to clinical cases and comprehensive medical collaboration, including management and coordination of services by specialty.
With regards to the commercial market in Panama, José Manuel Bern, VP of Empresas Bern, developer of the Centro Médico del Este, sees high expectations for the health sector due to the optimal growth Panama has undergone in the past 10 years.
“We see many international companies setting up headquarters in Panama, which boosts construction. We think we are experiencing a construction boom at par with the demand, including all related aspects such as offices, apartments, hotels and also the health sector” he offers.
He adds, “The health market in Panama is adapting to changes in a population now interested in prevention, fitness and access to specialized treatment. The leading hospitals are quickly expanding their infrastructure and range of care offerings in order cater to an international audience”.
Bern highlights that seeing the centralization of health care in downtown while the city itself expands towards the outskirts by building all-inclusive residential developments, is the reason behind this project’s genesis. Empresas Bern seized the opportunity of bringing the best possible health care closer to a new, growing segment of the population.