Belize has a relatively well established medical care delivery system both at the private and public sector level. Government operates hospitals or poly clinics in every major city and town and in other major population centers such as large villages.
But no matter what you may have heard before from sources touting the good life in Belize, be aware that medical care in Belize does not meet the same standards as medical care in North America or the European Union. With a population of a little over 300,000, with more than half living in poverty, the economics are simply not there for the level of medical care you may be accustomed to in your home country. There is no level one trauma center in the country. The U.S. embassy and other foreign missions recommend that foreign nationals verify their medical coverage, especially catastrophic medical coverage including the cost of medical evacuation, before visiting or taking up residence in Belize.
Belize City offers the highest level of medical care in the country due of course to the large population and client base, close to 100,000 taking into account suburban areas such as Vista Del Mar, Ladyville and Ambergris Caye. Several dental and private medical, lab and diagnostic facilities are available in this urban center. Most any serious medical problems can be treated at Belize’s main referral hospital, the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (Princess Margaret Drive, Tel. 501-223-1548).
This is a modern public hospital but plagued by equipment problems,supply shortages, and management problems. Hardly a month goes by with stories such as improper treatment, wrong diagnosis, bodies improperly stored and so on. Being a government owned and operated facility this is to be expected. Horror stories are common, as with the Norfolk police chief who nearly died in Belize after contracting flu-like symptoms. But it is is hard to beat the rates, under US$50. per day for a hospital room compared to $500. a day at a local private hospital.
There are seven other public hospitals here, including three regional hospitals – the Southern Regional Hospital in Dangriga, the Northern Regional Hospital in Orange Walk Town, and the Western Regional Hospital in the nation’s capital The City Of Belmopan. Altogether, there are about 700 public hospital beds in the country’s hospitals.
The public hospitals provide basic medical specialties: internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics and OB-GYN. Karl Heusner Memorial also provides neurology, ENT, physiotherapy, orthopedic surgery and several other services. The quality of these hospitals varies considerably. Karl Heusner Memorial – named after a prominent Belize City German physician in colonial era Belize opened in 1997 and has modern equipment, such as a CAT-scan, though some Belizeans and expats complain that even this hospital is chronically short of supplies, and the imaging equipment is often non functional. It is not uncommon for patients at this main referral hospital to be told they need to do certain lab tests at a private facility as the hospital laboratory has run out of a reagent or a piece of equipment is non functional. Adding to the KHMH’s woes is a politically controlled board of directors and the load it must handle from the high crime rate in Belize City.
The Western Regional Hospital in The City Of Belmopan is about the next best in Belize after the KHMH. It opened almost 30 years ago but has gone through several renovations and additions. In 2011 it expanded to four operating theaters, added a dental clinic, and computerized its health records system. This alone adds a lot of efficiency as returning patients can be more easily diagnosed by retrieving their health profile and prescription information 24/7. The hospital is well staffed by Belizean, and volunteer health care professionals from Cuba and the U.S.
The Southern Regional Hospital in Dangriga, which opened in 2000, is another modern facility, with much of the same medical technologies and equipment as you’d find in a community hospital in a North American town. Other hospitals leave a lot to be desired. The Northern Regional Hospital in Orange Walk for example, looks more like a refugee camp than a hospital, with low cinder block buildings and limited equipment.
The Corozal Town Hospital has become a joke of a clinic and most residents in the area cross the border to seek medical attention at a Mexican government or private health care facility.
Several small medical clinics, one essentially a small hospital, operate on Ambergris Caye. Besides these hospitals, Belize has a network of around 60 public health clinics and rural health posts in many towns and villages around the country, providing primary medical and dental care. Most of these suffer from inadequate staffing, too many patients for their available resources and lack of equipment and medicine. Doctors may diagnose health problems, but they may not be able to provide the proper medications.
In addition to these public hospitals and clinics, the country has three private hospitals La Loma Luz Hospital, a private institution run by the Seventh Day Adventist mission in Santa Elena near San Ignacio, Belize Medical Associates, a private facility in Belize City, and Universal Health Services also in Belize City. Altogether these private hospitals have about 100 hospital beds.
Belize Medical Associates has become the hospital of choice for the local elite due to its higher level cadre of doctors and equipment. Several well qualified government medical specialists are known to moonlight here to supplement their meager government salaries. Universal Health Services is also a good choice for private medical care. When the Prime Minister’s law partner was recently badly injured, he was rushed to the Belize Universal Health Services, the ambulance literally bypassing the government owned Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital next door. Starting in the late 1990s, health care in Belize got a boost, thanks to the arrival of a group of several dozen medical volunteers from Cuba and Nigeria. As of 2012 more than 100 Cuban nurses and physicians practice here.
The Cost Of Medical Care In Belize
Dentists and medical doctors make a very good living in Belize. Those who can afford it, specialize in fields such as orthodontic dentistry, gastroenterology, internal medicine or cardiology to cater to the elite. A few dentists, especially those in Belize city, shun regular dentistry for cosmetic dentistry such as braces and tooth whitening. As an example a local dentist will make $25. pulling a tooth during a 30 minute procedure. Adjusting braces will earn him / her $150. for a 20 minute procedure.
But in most towns the cost of dental procedures is well below that of North America – roughly about half the cost. A visit to a medical practitioner for basic ailments will cost about U.S. $70. including medication such as basic antibiotics, cough or allergy medicine.
Most private medical institutions in here accept medical insurance plans. Best advice is to call before making an appointment.
Due to the relatively high cost of high-level medical care in the country, many locals and expats travel to Chetumal (Mexico) and Melchor-Flores (Guatemala) for more affordable medical and dental care. Specialist medical attention is usually sought in Merida, Yucatan, and increasingly, in Guatemala City.
Most local physicians and dentists are trained in the U.K., Cuba, U.S., Guatemala and Mexico. There are two offshore medical schools in Belize, but their graduates usually practice in the U.S. A nursing school forms part of the University of Belize. Locally trained nurses are in high demand in the U.S. so much so that recruiters visit Belize every year trying to entice these health professionals to leave Belize. While many expats do go to Guatemala, or to Chetumal or Mérida, Mexico, for specialized treatment, others who can afford it go to Houston, Miami, New Orleans or elsewhere in the U.S.
The ADO Bus from Mexico now has daily runs between Belize, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen and Merida. The latter is referred to as the “hospital run”. Merida in the Yucatan is a tier one one medical center with several specialist hospitals catering to the medical needs of most of Central America.
Cancer Treatment In Belize
Cancer treatment in Belize can be very expensive. There is not one medical doctor qualified in oncology resident in Belize. There is no facility for radiation therapy. Even something as simple as a biopsy can cost thousands of dollars as the samples are sent overseas and the waiting period is at least two weeks.
A Belizean American Oncologist Dr. Ellsworth Grant operates a small cancer clinic in Dangriga as a public service for poor Belizeans but no one is turned away. Dr. Grant travels frequently to Belize from his home base in the U.S. and chemo therapy is available at his clinic. But radiation must be done out of the country, usually Guatemala.
Medical Tourism In Belize
The Belize government has put forth the idea of developing Belize as a medical tourism center, offering services such as heart angioplasty, joint replacement surgery, pacemaker battery replacement and even heart surgery. To date limited procedures have been carried out at the government’s K.H.M.H hospital in Belize city under the guidance of visiting medical specialists from the U.S. But the fact is that medical care at Belize medical institutions owned and operated by the government are not held in high regard by Belizeans.
Increasingly Belizeans and expats living in Belize, use neighboring Mexico and Guatemala for specialized treatment. On one of our private mailing lists, one expat wrote:
“When I was in Belize recently, I talked with a fellow who had planned to go to Miami, Florida, for a hip replacement (he’s already had two knee replacements and one do-over in Miami.) But he ended up having it done in Mérida, Yucatan Mexico, for around US$12,000. inclusive of hospital, surgeon fees, hotels, travel, etc. instead of more than US$50,000 in Miami. Six weeks out from the surgery he is walking a little on his own and is very pleased with the results.”