Healthcare in the Philippines is a constant concern among our clients. Especially nowadays, with the recent outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus in China, this concern has become more relevant than ever. So, while we have already written an in-depth article about general safety in the Philippines, we have now decided to cover the medical part separately.
Generally speaking, the Philippines is not a dangerous country when it comes to health concerns. Sanitary and hygienic conditions are at a reasonable level at most places, especially if you judge it by 3rd world standards. In over 3 years of operation, and thousands of clients, we have yet to have an incident where someone’s health was at risk. This is especially true for tourists, who usually stick to the popular areas and book at least reasonably priced hotels. Of course, going off the beaten path or booking cheap hostels, increases the risk of contracting diseases or even just feeling unwell during your trip.
With that said, there are a few precautionary measures you can take if you are concerned. Booking through a local travel agent who knows the country and the different hotels is a great first step, but it’s certainly not enough. While we will help with any unpleasant surprise and any emergency you might encounter, the main objective is to make sure you never need such help to begin with.
Below, you can find our overview and opinion on the healthcare system in the Philippines. The emphasis is of course on travelers and situations they might encounter. While this is based on our extensive experience in the country, we urge you to treat this only as a guide and seek professional medical advice whenever necessary.
Novel Corona Virus outbreak
First, let’s address the more specific and current concern, before continuing to provide more general advice. As everyone knows, this virus is currently running rampant in China. Naturally, this raises concerns of an impending outbreak here in the Philippines due to the proximity and strong economic and touristic ties between the two countries.
Luckily, so far the situation has been kept very well under control. The Philippines government has taken serious steps to prevent anything serious from happening and this has proven successful thus far. Flights from China, Hong Kong and Macau have all been cancelled until further notice, and it seems like this was done early enough to prevent the epidemic from spreading to the country.
We currently have dozens of clients visiting the country and many more who plan to come here in the upcoming months. Their vacations remain largely unaffected and they are able to have a wonderful time while staying healthy and safe. Nevertheless, we highly suggest you follow with your local department of health and adhere to any travel and safety warnings. Currently, there is no such warnings for visiting the Philippines, but we also monitor the situation on a daily basis and follow the directions provided by the local Department of Health and Department of Tourism.
General quality and availability of health services
The general health system model in the country is very similar to the U.S – with a clear divide between public and private healthcare. The level of public hospitals is abysmal, with people sometimes waiting for weeks before getting even basic treatment. So, for the sake of this article we are going to assume you will always be using private healthcare instead.
Another clear divide is by location. There’s basically Manila and then everywhere else. Some guides (for example Lonely Plant’s) claim Cebu is also on par with Manila. However, based on our experiences, this is completely false. While Cebu’s medical facilities are far better than those at other islands, it’s not where you want to be treated should something go wrong. If you are need of serious medical attention, Manila is the only reliable place you can get it.
The Philippines has a Capitalistic, wild west mentality, and this is also strongly embodied in its healthcare system. We heard many stories of locals being left to literally bleed to death on the floor while their relatives scramble to find proof of income so the staff will agree to take them in and treat them. This is something you shouldn’t encounter as a foreigner, because they automatically assume you are rich, but it does mean it is important to always have you medical insurance papers with you just in case.
Even in Manila, there’s a very clear divide between different private hospitals. Luckily, the best ones are conveniently located right next to the popular tourist areas and where you’ll most likely be staying anyway. While there are a few good options in Quezon City, the best choice in our opinion is St.Luke’s Medical center in BGC. The treatment there is fast and professional, and standards are similar to what you would expect at your home country.
In smaller islands, the situation is a bit more complicated. It varies between each place, but generally speaking you only want to get preliminary medical attention and diagnosis there, while booking a ticket to Manila or even back home for more serious and professional treatment. Bohol and Boracay for example are quite developed and touristy, so the standards there are acceptable.
Other places have little to offer, even touristy places such as El Nido or Siagrao for example. If something serious happens while you are there, you will have to travel for 3-4 hours to a major city (Puerto Princesa and Surigao respectively) in order to get proper medical attention. This is something you should keep in mind, and let us know in case you suffer from health complications – it might be better to skip these islands altogether in such a case. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other, wonderful islands you can visit instead!
Common diseases in the Philippines
The main risk for contracting any disease is through mosquito bites, with Dengue Fever being the most common culprit. While always prevalent, serious outbreaks occur every few years. Usually this happens in densely populated, poor-hygiene areas such as the Manila slums or poor suburbs of Cebu City. Again, this is nothing you should be seriously worried about as you won’t be staying in those areas and your chances of getting ill are extremely slim, even if there is an outbreak.
Malaria is another risk people get anxious about. Many tourist buy expensive pills with severe side effects to protect themselves from it. While we can’t tell you whether you should do it or not, from experience it is not needed. Recorded cases of Malaria are VERY rare, and it has only been sighted in the utmost rural areas of Palawan. While Palawan is on pretty much every tourist’s travel list, the areas at risk are very far from where you’ll be staying.
The best way to minimize risk is by buying a good mosquito repellent. You can buy a local product named ‘OFF’ at any pharmacy, and it is highly effective. Other than that, we don’t feel there’s much you need to do. The chance of getting ill through a bite exists, but it is very small. You should be aware of it for sure, and if you see you have gotten bit you should keep track of your health, but not much other than that.
Other ways of contracting serious illness is through water. Cholera, Typhoid and other such diseases are all common, and are caused by consuming contaminated water. Even eating food which was washed with such water can pose a risk. The only thing to do is make sure you don’t eat at sketchy looking places – preferably try and eat most meals at your resort or a well established, serious looking restaurant. If you like, we can recommend good places to eat everywhere you go to.
Most places will offer to serve you tap water. This is fine, since it’s not really from the tap but rather from jerrycans holding purified water. Still, it might be safer to pay a bit extra and order a bottle of water instead. Even in fancy 5 stars hotels, it is highly advisable to NOT drink from the faucet in your room. People who want to be extra careful even use bottled water to brush their teeth, although that seems like an over-reaction.
Lastly, rabies is also reported in the Philippines, although almost exclusively in rural areas. This is quite rare so there’s no need to get vaccinated in advance. Should you be bitten by a stray dog or some other animal, you would need to fly to Manila or Cebu and get the vaccine there. Getting treated in a smaller hospital is not safe, as there have been reports in the past regarding counterfeit or expired vaccines being served there.
What to do in case of a medical emergency
The first thing you need to do is immediately contact your insurance provider and follow their orders. Of course, their advice should be taken with a grain of salt as they might prioritize their expenses over your health, but it’s important to know where you stand with them regardless. Then, you should also contact your personal physician back home and get a 2nd opinion from him.
Then, once you have all the information and a general idea of what should be done next, contact us to help you make it happen. If there’s a need to book an urgent flight + a place to spend the night, we will help you take care of it ASAP. You will then be able to get the money back from the insurance company in most cases. It’s important you know that part of our service is helping in such cases. We don’t “forget” about our guests once they paid, and are committed to help with whatever you need so that you can enjoy a safe vacation.
Minor health risks and discomforts
When it comes to minor inconveniences, the first thing which comes to mind are jellyfish. Getting bit can be scary, as it can cause a burning sensation and make your chest cramp up. You might experience some difficulty breathing which is very alarming, but in reality 99% cases of jellyfish stings are harmless.
This usually happens while out on island hopping tours where you’ll be accompanied by an experienced local guide, so just notify him of the situation and follow his advice. Most of our clients book private tours – so if you feel any discomfort you can always tell the guide to take you back to the hotel. Even if it is a group tour,
Other than that, sunburns are also common and quite a nuisance. General rules to protecting yourself from the sun apply here as well. Keep in mind the radiation here is stronger than what you are used to. Even a few minutes of unprotected exposure can lead to pretty annoying sunburns later on.
How to prepare for a trip to the Philippines
We can write a whole grocery list of vaccines and medication to stock up on. But in reality, as mentioned above, most of these are really not necessary. The only real reason to get any of these is if they required as part of your travel insurance policy. For example, some companies demand you vaccinate against Hepatitis A and B, or else you won’t be covered should something happen during your trip.
Of course, the best and safest thing to do is to visit your local doctor 1-2 months prior to arrival. In any case, make sure you take his or her number and that they are aware you will be visiting a tropical country. It is very important you have someone you trust to consult with should you need a 2nd opinion regarding any health issue. If your local physician recommends any precautionary measure before arriving here, we highly suggest you follow this advice.
Summary – Staying healthy in the Philippines
We realize reading through all of this might make you feel scared, which is perfectly normal. After all, the Philippines is a 3rd world country and it is important to keep that in mind. However, as long as you are well prepared and aware of the possible risks and complications, there is absolutely no need to worry.
In reality, millions of tourists visit the Philippines each year and are all able to stay safe and have a great time. The chances of anything happening are very slim. Regardless, with us you are always in good hands and have someone to rely upon should anything go wrong.