TBY talks to HE Dr. Javier Terrientes, Minister of Health for the Republic of Panama, on improving health services in rural areas, changing the country's health habits, and medical tourism.

HE Dr. Javier Terrientes
Javier Terrientes graduated from the University of Panama with a specialization in radiology. He has over 20 years experience in the medical field, and has made notable contributions to the Panamanian Council of Osteoporosis and other professional organizations. Prior to his appointment as Minister of Health in 2014, Terrientes worked at the Clinica Hospital San Fernando.

What measures does the Ministry plan to implement to improve the quality of health services in Panama?

The core objective of our Ministry is to provide universal access to healthcare. Public authorities have increasingly invested in health infrastructure; however, we still face inequity of access, and uneven service quality. In the capital, Panamanians enjoy high-quality treatment and advanced technological services, whereas in remote areas of the country the situation is wholly different. We want to institute the same quality of services throughout the country. This will involve changing the mentality of both doctors and patients. It is important that everyone feels that they are an active part of the healthcare system. Geographic issues are another challenge that we face. In the past, infrastructure investment was unequal, meaning that we must address this situation by investing in marginalized areas.

What are some of the challenges facing the Ministry of Health over the next five years?

Previous public health authorities have prioritized investment in curative medicine. In contrast, our current focus will be preventive medicine. Long-term investment in the latter is more efficient than the former. This represents a fundamental shift in the healthcare culture of Panama, because we must change the mindset of patients to help them understand that they need to pay more attention to their environment, their diet, and their physical condition. Doing so will reduce their chances of contracting diseases, or suffering from other health conditions. It is also important to properly train our doctors as well, because they will play a key role in educating and informing their patients of these developments.

What are your investment plans for the near future?

A significant part of our budget will be dedicated to operating hospitals that the previous administrations had built. We also want to develop additional oncology centers to provide Panamanians with high-quality cancer treatment. Plans are also in place to build a new children's hospital, as our current facilities do not meet the growing needs of our population. At the moment, we are in talks with a number of international consortiums keen to invest in Panama, which could potentially become partners in the new children's hospital project.

What is the potential of Panama to become a regional health hub?

Panama is already a commercial, geographic, and logistics hub, and we stand to benefit from becoming a health hub as well. There are already considerable investors interested in developing Panama into a destination for health tourism. International healthcare investment would boost the development of health infrastructure, increase the transfer of know-how, and solidify our position as a leading regional health services provider. Foreign hospitals have shown considerable interest in Panama, and their entry into the market would enable us to increase the geographic coverage of our healthcare system.

How would you assess the level of medical education in Panama?

The Faculty of Medicine of the University of Panama has been the primary provider of talented and skilled healthcare professionals. We also have doctors working in Panama who have gained experience by working and studying abroad. Over the past few years, private universities have also invested heavily in their own medical training departments. We are proud to announce that recent international tests administered by US health bodies, found that healthcare professionals in Panama were both highly trained and educated. The Ministry co-finances these international tests to ensure that our healthcare professionals have attained a high level of education and qualification in their respective fields.

What is your outlook for the Panamanian health sector for the next five years?

We must work toward ensuring that Panamanian citizens can always enjoy high-quality health services, and this goal is attainable within the next five years. It is also important to continue investing in our human resources, which will attract local and foreign patients to our facilities. Panama is set to become a regional health hub, and health tourism will play an increasing role in our economy.