Healthcare in Colombia has become known for its quality, coverage and accessibility. The country generally provides care of an excellent standard at a relatively low cost. This attracts numerous medical tourists looking for affordable treatment.
Health insurance is compulsory. All residents must be registered with a health service provider. Both public and private companies provide insurance to promote competition and a higher standard of service.
Public healthcare in Colombia
Public healthcare in Colombia can be of a high standard, but its quality and reliability are inconsistent. Patients in public hospitals often face overcrowded emergency rooms, long waiting times and a shortage of doctors.
Despite this, the level of care in the major urban centres is usually excellent, with well-trained doctors and well-equipped facilities. On the other hand, access to healthcare in more rural areas can be challenging.
Most expats in Colombia opt to have some form of private healthcare plan, at least as a backup or for medical emergencies.
Private healthcare in Colombia
Expats living in Colombia will find private healthcare easily accessible and affordable, even on a local salary. The country boasts a modern private healthcare system centred on the major cities. There is a range of insurance and treatment options for almost every budget.
Private healthcare in Colombia also attracts many medical tourists, especially from the US, who are wooed by the high quality of care and the low prices. This is particularly true for cosmetic surgeries and dental work.
Health insurance in Colombia
Residents of Colombia must be insured under one of two regimes. The subsidised regime is for low-income families and is known as SISBEN (El Sistema de Selección de Beneficiarios para Programas Sociales). Meanwhile, the contributory regime known as EPS (Entidade Promotoras de Salud) is for those earning above the minimum monthly amount. Most expats will fall into the latter category.
The EPS contribution is part of an employee's salary. Expats with a contract that meets the minimum salary requirements must join the contributory health system. The system requires appointments to be made in advance. A referral from a GP is needed before seeing a specialist. Some services may require a small co-payment.
Expats are also advised to take out private medical insurance, even if they pay into the national healthcare plan. Most health issues can be dealt with at one of the many hospitals or clinics, but in the case of chronic or long-term illness, it is advisable to have the extra cover in case specialist care is required. Expats can purchase private health insurance from several local or international providers.
When moving abroad with an employer, they will likely have already implemented a corporate healthcare plan. If moving independently, expats should consider purchasing private insurance to top up the services available in the public system.
Pharmacies in Colombia
There are numerous pharmacies in cities and towns across the country. Many of these, particularly the large pharmacy chains like Cruz Verde, Farmatodo and Farmacias Colsubsidio, operate seven days a week and are open 24 hours a day. Some pharmacies offer home delivery services. Medication is also available over the counter at relatively low prices compared to those in the US and Europe.
Pharmacies tend to be well stocked, and many medications that require a prescription in other countries can be bought over the counter in Colombia. While there aren't strict regulations on bringing reasonable amounts of prescription medication into the country, expats will likely find that purchasing their medication in Colombia will be significantly cheaper than in their home country.
Health hazards in Colombia
The tap water in major cities is generally safe to drink, although many houses and apartments have small water-filtration systems installed. Expats should not drink tap water outside the major urban centres unless it has been boiled, filtered or sterilised.
Mosquito-borne viral diseases, including yellow fever, dengue fever and chikungunya, pose a significant threat in Colombia. Malaria is also prevalent in some rural and low-altitude areas, especially in the Pacific coastal regions, the Amazon region and some parts of the Orinoquía region. Expats should take the necessary precautions. When travelling to high-risk areas of the country, expats should use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and pants, use window and door screens and consider antimalarial medications.
Pre-travel vaccinations for Colombia
The following vaccinations are recommended for expats travelling to Colombia:
Routine vaccinations, if not up to date (measles, tetanus, poliovirus etc.)
Emergency services in Colombia
The national ambulance service of Colombia is called the Servicio de Atención Médica de Urgencia (SAMU). It is available throughout the country and is free to all citizens. Health insurance will typically also cover the cost of ambulance services.
In Colombia, every clinic or hospital must provide immediate medical care to anyone who requires emergency medical attention.
In an emergency, expats can call the national emergency number (123) and will be redirected to the appropriate service. If they want English-speaking operators, they can request to be connected to the Colombian tourist police (policía turística).