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Doctors and Hospitals for Expats in Brazil

Submitted: May 2014

Brazil should be viewed as having a two-tier system where it’s generally best to get treatment in the private sector. If you can’t afford the charges, you can still get free medical treatment in the Universal Health System (SUS). Availability of qualified doctors and modern equipment is likely to become an issue if you don’t live in Rio or Sao Paulo.

Healthcare standards in Brazil are not known to be that great, especially in the public sector. Services are much better in the private sector, as Brazilian doctors are broadly well-qualified. Thus, Brazil is certainly a destination for medical tourism in Latin America.

However, Brazil’s hospitals can no longer be viewed as cheap, unlike what could have been the case 10 years ago. If you are a US citizen looking for a major surgery, Brazil may be reasonably viewed as a cheap country. Primary healthcare is anyway still affordable.

If you are not happy with the Brazilian healthcare system, you can still consider postponing treatment until after you leave Brazil. In any event, you must go to a Brazilian hospital if you are in an emergency situation.

How much Brazilians spend on healthcare?

Overall, Brazil’s total healthcare expenditures (public + private) stand at 9.3% of GDP, which is just slightly below the average among developed countries. Brazil is still an emerging country though, i.e. with a lower income per capita. As a result, the Brazilian way of life involves spending much less money on healthcare than Europeans in absolute terms.

Language issues

Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country. Consequently, Brazilian doctors will not necessarily speak foreign languages to an acceptable degree, especially in the public sector. Of course, Brazilian doctors are likely to have learnt a foreign language at school, but this would generally be English or Spanish only.

Regional variations

Slums tend to have poor healthcare coverage, regardless of where in Brazil you are.

Broadly, the South East is where you could get the best SUS coverage. This is where the most experienced doctors are. Thus, you might need to travel a few hundred miles if you need modern equipment or specialist treatment. The Instituto do Câncer of Sao Paulo (ICESP) is known to be one of the best public hospitals across Brazil.

On the other hand, you would typically expect less in a poor or remote place. Even in the private sector, Brazilian doctors just shun these areas, either because they know there is no market or because they are just better off staying in larger cities. If you are an expat going for work on a project in a very remote place, your employer might wish to have a deal with a medical assistance company.

The Federal Government is trying to reduce these healthcare coverage inequalities, by recruiting foreign-trained doctors to work in areas Brazilian doctors don’t want to live in. These foreign doctors often come from Argentina, Portugal or Spain. Brazilian doctors are a powerful lobby though, and they frown upon the admission of overseas doctors into Brazil.

Finding a doctor

You should look for a good general practitioner (GP) in your local area as soon as possible. If you fail to do so, you may end up having to go to an overcrowded hospital emergency room when you have a problem.

Feel free to:

  • check how many doctors and hospitals there are in your local area
  • check their opening hours, and patient feedback/satisfaction rate
  • ask your doctor if he has an out-of-hours service

Word of mouth can help you determine if a specific doctor or hospital is trustworthy or not. You are always better off knowing in advance who you can trust.

Specialists and hospital treatment

If you need to have specialist treatment or make diagnostics, you are likely to have to go to the private sector. Regarding hospitals generally, about two thirds of all Brazilian hospitals are in the private sector. Some of them are non-profits.

Private hospitals in Sao Paulo and Rio are so few that they have been reported to take the opportunity to charge substantially more than before.

Walk-in clinics

If your problem is minor, you can go to a walk-in clinic (pronto socorro) in order to receive first-aid treatment. Treatment is provided for free, but these clinics neither have the personnel nor the equipment to undertake major procedures.

Dental care

Dentistry in Brazil is subject to strong regional variations in terms of service quality. Dentists in Rio and Sao Paulo tend to be of high standard. Things may be much more uncertain elsewhere in Brazil, where it’s best to know which dentist you think you can trust.

Dental care is fairly cheap, at least cheap enough to lure US citizens into Brazil.

Medicines

Medications are sold at pharmacies only. A prescription may be needed, but this varies from one drug to another.

 

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