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Health care quality in the Americas: Brazil, Argentina and Mexico

No matter where we are in the world, one of our core considerations is health care.

Will the treatment I receive be of the best quality? Are the emergency medical services equipped to handle life-threatening situations? What do I need to know to keep myself and my family well and happy during our time living overseas? We all want the reassurance that our mental and physical well-being needs can be met so that we can get on with enjoying our lives. In some countries, health care is free and of a high quality, but in many, access to quality care can be a challenge, which is why employers sending employees on assignments often opt for private health insurance to ensure workers remain happy, healthy and productive.

South America

Home to established health care systems, there are places in South America where public health provision is clearly a governmental priority. But many foreign nationals still find it necessary to look to private facilities where they can access a consistently good standard of care. The best hospitals are found in the larger cities, while rural and remote areas may be, at best, hit and miss.


Held up by the UN as a model health care system for poorer countries, Brazil’s ‘flawed but fair’ universal programme is used by 70% of the population. Twenty years in the making, it’s built on four cornerstones: promoting health, preventing sickness, treating the sick and injured, and tackling serious disease. The system is supported by three levels of government: federal, state, and municipal. Foreign nationals need to be aware that it’s a good idea to have a Portuguese speaker with you when seeking treatment, if you’re not fluent yourself. Doctors who speak English or other languages are not always available.

Foreigners in Brazil are entitled to emergency care but most expats and wealthier residents opt for private medical care in order to access better facilities and to avoid queues and overcrowding. It’s worth noting that private hospitals may not accept you for treatment unless you can prove you have private medical insurance or enough funds to pay for the treatment. With 2 doctors per 1,000 people, the ratio of physicians is not far behind many European countries, and performance-wise, the health care system is ranked as 125th in the world by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the World health report published in 2000.


Widely regarded as having one of the best health care systems in Latin America, expats will find standards are more than acceptable in the major cities like Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Mendoza. Facilities may vary across the rest of the country, and it’s worth having a contingency plan in place when travelling to more rural areas in the event that you need to access medical care. The public health care system, which provides both inpatient (where you’re admitted to hospital) and outpatient care (where you don’t need to be admitted to hospital to receive treatment), free of charge to citizens, it is used by about 50% of the home-grown population. Although there is no universal GP (general practitioner, also known as a family doctor) system, it is possible to access physician-led care in the hospitals and specialist clinics. Medical staff are well trained but access to adequate nursing and aftercare can be inconsistent, so many residents opt for private health care instead.

Emergency treatment is free for foreign nationals but expats might want to have proper private medical insurance in place to cover more complex conditions, to access the higher standards of private care, and in the event that repatriation (transporting mortal remains to your home country in the event of your death) may be necessary. The country has a high doctor ratio, with nearly 4 per 1,000 inhabitants, putting it in line with Germany and Italy. It’s ranked as 75th by the World Health Organization, but the country as a whole spends 4.8% of its GDP on health, the lowest rate in South America.

Health care Central America


Mexico has excellent health care facilities that are available in a three-tier system:

  • A very basic level of care is open to nationals without an income
  • A public system paid for directly from resident’s wage packet and overseen by the Mexican social security system or the IMSS (Mexican Social Security Institute, which is open to foreign nationals)
  • Private sector

The level of care available is so good, millions of U.S. citizens take advantage of Mexico’s medical tourism industry every year, with patients very often paying out–of-pocket (paying for health care themselves, or paying upfront and then claiming repayment for eligible treatment from their medical insurance provider) and still making a saving over using facilities back at home.

Not all hospitals accept private medical insurance as a means of financing care, and non-residents have to pre-pay and claim back later.

The best hospitals can be found in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey and finding an English-speaking doctor is generally not a problem. However, expats who don’t speak Spanish or English may need to take a potential language barrier into account when seeking treatment. On an international scale, Mexico is ranked at 61 in the WHO’s league table of countries for the performance of its health care system. There are just over 2 doctors per 1,000 people (roughly the same as Canada and Singapore) and the country spends 6.8% of its GDP on health care — similar to other places in the area, such as El Salvador and Guatemala.

If you’re planning to move or travel overseas and need more information on private health care insurance for a specific country, get in touch with one of our expert sales consultants today.

If you’re moving overseas

For anyone considering a move to another country to live and work, it’s worth while doing some detailed research on the health care system.

You will need to find out:

  • Where are the best hospitals?
  • What access do foreign nationals have to universal health care?
  • What standard of facilities and personnel are available?

And what about insurance? In most cases, this will be compulsory but, in order to ensure your health and safety, what level of cover will you need? Consider whether you might need:

  • Access to a General Practitioner (family doctor)
  • Inpatient and outpatient care
  • Specialist treatment for on-going care and emergency health care provision
  • Evacuation or repatriation if the treatment you need isn’t available locally

Choosing the right health care insurance provider can make all the difference. Established systems, networks and relationships create the operational core of a company like Aetna. For more information, please contact one of our expert sales consultants. 

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