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How Good Are Doctors in Mexico?  

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Healthcare in Mexico at San Javier Hospital in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Hospital San Javier Puerto Vallarta

As part of an online discussion, I remember telling a woman living in a small town in Illinois, that medical care is most often very good in Mexico. She responded that she would rather be treated by “American” doctors, that doctors are better trained in the U.S., and blah blah blah. So, how good are doctors in Mexico? Based on my personal experience living in Mexico for many years, the experiences of other expats in Mexico that I know and based on research I did for this article, my conclusion is very good. You need not be concerned.

I could overlook this woman’s xenophobia given the fact that she probably did not know that Mexicans are Americans. However, I was annoyed enough that I asked the name of the hospital in the town where she lived, and I reviewed the credentials of their medical staff.

Not surprisingly, many of the staff doctors were trained in India, Saudi Arabia, and of course, Mexico. Some had completed medical school in their home country and had gone on to do internships in Canada or the United States.

“Medicine is very international,” I later explained to Ms. Illinois, pointing out that her own doctor had gone to med school in Guadalajara.

Illustration of a hospital building
Credit: GraphicsRF | Shutterstock

Worldwide, medical training is expensive. But among the approximately 100 medical schools in Mexico, there are affordable ones that make it possible for students of more modest means, both from Mexico and the other countries in North America, to become licensed doctors. However, acceptance to medical school is still competitive and based on pre-requisite courses, scores on the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), knowledge of Spanish (and in some cases, English).

There are both public and private medical schools and most medical and dental students in Mexico attend right after high school, unlike the U.S. and Canada where an undergraduate degree is completed first. Remarkably, a free university education is offered to any student in Mexico upon high school graduation provided they can pass entrance exams. This free education includes medical, dental, and even veterinary school.

Medical students who attended a public university are required to serve a year in government-supported clinics or hospitals serving remote or disadvantaged communities and is one of the reasons that Mexico can offer its citizens (and qualified foreigners) universal healthcare.

Upon fulfilling the requirements to practice as a professional in Mexico, one obtains a cedula or license. This is true of both medical doctors and dentists as well as other professions where a license is required to practice, including architects, accountants, attorneys, engineers, etc. This certificate is issued by the government and professionals must display this document.

If a physician has completed studies in a specialization, they will have a cedula to certify them as a general practitioner, and one for each of the specialties that they are legally certified to practice. Although medical quackery is not a widespread problem in Mexico, it does exist, not only in medicine, but other professions as well. You can discover if a doctor has a current cedula by entering information on on this government website.

After completing medical school and an internship and being awarded a cedula to practice by the government, many physicians continue their studies to specialize in some area of medicine. A cedula is different from medical board certification, which is more likely to assure that the practitioner you are working with is both certified and competent.

Medical Boards provide an important function in developed countries by providing standards of competency and ongoing education for doctors in their fields, among other benefits. This is true in Mexico as well. In Mexico there are a many medical associations, medical boards, credential-granting organizations, and governmental and non-governmental agencies that evaluate medical qualifications.

When I wrote the first edition of “The English Speakers Guide to Medical Care in Mexico” over ten years ago, medical boards were nearly non-existent in Mexico. Yet today, all recognized medical specialties have a Medical Board and some have two or more.

Medical boards in Mexico are known as Consejos (although some call themselves associations) and many physicians have been certified in some area of specialization. This means that they are both legally enabled to practice that specialty by fulfilling the Consejos’s training requirements and have passed exams to demonstrate both knowledge and skill in that area of specialization. To maintain board certification, most Consejos require continuing education and some award credit for publishing, attending professional conferences and meetings, etc.

Stethoscope and medical prescription
Credit: Sheff | Shutterstock

Although this is a wonderful trend in Mexican medicine, current lack of certification should not necessarily disqualify an otherwise potentially good physician from consideration. There are highly experienced physicians that are not certified by any board, primarily because their education predates the arrival of medical boards and they have opted not to participate.

However, board certification of specialists has become the current standard, and assures patients that a physician’s medical knowledge is up to date. In some areas of specialization, following the evolving science is a monumental task. But if you want assurance that your doctor is highly qualified to do what they claim, board certification is the gold standard.

One of the reasons that many people mistakenly believe that physicians in Mexico are less qualified than those trained in the U.S. or Canada is that they charge less for their services than medical practitioners farther to the north, sometimes a lot less. But there are reasons for this that have nothing to do with their training or qualifications.

While it is a complex issue, and some of the reasons simply have to do with the overall economic differences, here are a few reasons that simply pertain to the medical culture of Mexico:

Physicians in Mexico do not typically earn six-figure salaries. Earnings in Mexico are lower across the entire spectrum of jobs, and this is just as true for doctors and other medical professionals. But there is more to it than that.

Piggy bank in a pile of cash
Credit: David Crockett | Shutterstock

Most doctors in Mexico do not start their professional careers needing to pay off student debt. In the U.S., the average medical school debt is $215,900, excluding premedical and other educational debt. The average medical school graduate owes $241,600 in total student loan debt and 76-89% of medical school graduates have educational debt.

This does not include the student debt from undergraduate school, nor interest. Patients in the U.S, their employers and insurance companies, ultimately pay these student loans. In Mexico, many medical students study at free public universities or in private universities with much lower tuition.

Unlike medical practice in the U.S., for example, physicians do not typically order additional, frequently expensive and questionably unnecessary medical tests to proactively defend themselves against anticipated lawsuits. Doctors in Mexico do not purchase malpractice insurance (so there is no incentive for patients to sue for malpractice), thus saving the US$4,000-50,000 in annual malpractice insurance that doctors in the U.S. typically pay.

Doctors are not driven to generate high-volume, over-booked medical practices in Mexico by the economic demands of having the latest equipment, expensive malpractice insurance and the need for additional staffing to bill insurance companies, manage complex scheduling, directing the flow of patients into and out of examining rooms and to provide ‘witnesses’ during exams with female patients.

Furthermore, in Mexico a physician more typically owns his or her medical practice. There are few HMOs, PPOs or other corporate entities (and their shareholders) expecting and extracting a share of profits. I think that this is likely to change over time.

The attention of physicians in Mexico is more typically fully on the patient with fewer distractions by pharmaceutical representatives and phone calls from pharmacists in the background, and of course, the need to hire people to manage those intrusions. And since the physician has lower expenses and the money goes directly to the physician, you, the patient, have lower medical costs.

Overall, I think it is safe to say that Mexico offers both Mexican and foreign students a good, solid medical school education and has launched many medical careers. Many expats living in Mexico love the medical care they receive in Mexico. When we first arrive in this country it is common for us to imagine that we might go back to our country of origin for medical care someday (and some expats do just that), but for most of us, we discover that we prefer care in Mexico, not just for the affordability, but because of the quality of care we receive.

Read more informative healthcare articles by Monica and others here.

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