Does Brazil Have Universal Healthcare?

credit: Peter Parker

Travelers hoping for an adventure in Brazil may prioritize healthcare, especially those who want to explore Brazil’s natural beauty. Others may want to know about Brazil’s healthcare for immigration or work purposes! Regardless, let’s cover everything important about Brazil’s healthcare system.

Brazil has a universal healthcare system called SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde). It’s accessible by citizens or travelers – with or without a visa- and fairly inexpensive. SUS conducts bariatric, gender reassignment, and organ for free, except cosmetic, unless it meets specific criteria.

Is There Universal Healthcare In Brazil?

Brazil has universal healthcare called the Unified Health System (Sistema Único de Saúde, or SUS). SUS offers complimentary healthcare services for all people on Brazilian soil.

To clarify, foreigners who are residents or travelers, students, tourists, or refugees, with or without a visa, can access SUS. Furthermore, social & legal status and income are irrelevant.

Is Universal Healthcare In Brazil Free?

People tend to use the terms universal healthcare and free healthcare interchangeably, but in truth, they are not synonymous.

Universal healthcare is a healthcare service that provides healthcare for 90 – 99% of citizens. It’s not necessarily free, but it is mainly accessible and inexpensive. Countries like Japan, France, and Germany have universal healthcare.

Free healthcare is a healthcare service that doesn’t cost citizens anything. It also goes by the term single-payer health care. The government covers all the costs via taxes and other revenue sources. The United Kingdom, Cuba, and Canada have free healthcare.

How Good Are SUS Health Services?

The SUS is on a steady path of progression, having done a lot of good for Brazil in the last three decades. The infant mortality rate dropped from 53 to 14 per thousand, while life expectancy increased from 64 to 76.

Despite their medical achievements, they face particular challenges akin to the public sector. They remain grossly underfunded and suffer from inequality and poor performance as a result. Corruption and quality standards are also among the constraints that bind their ability to deliver a better service.

Visiting an SUS healthcare facility may include long waiting periods and limited medical services due to a lack of equipment. A shortage of health professionals, low salaries, inadequate infrastructure, and shaky management compound the issues.

As a result, some Brazilians opt for the more expensive alternative and purchase private healthcare. The service and quality are often much better, but the cost means only about 22% of the population can access it.

Is Surgery Free In Brazil?

Most surgeries are free for anyone going through SUS healthcare services. There are no costs involved for the surgery, hospitalization, lab & doctor fees, or prescription drugs.

However, the SUS does not cover every kind of surgery. Some surgeries – like cosmetic surgery – require authorization and are subject to availability and specific medical criteria.

  • Cosmetic surgery SUS (Sistema único de saúde) rarely authorizes cosmetic surgeries, save for a few exceptions. SUS, or some public hospitals, may offer it for free if it matches the criteria for scientific training and benefits surgical residents.
  • Bariatric surgery Brazilian law states that SUS must provide bariatric surgeries to its citizens free of charge. The country initiated the law in the year 2000.   
  • Organ transplant surgery Brazil’s Minister of Health provides the funds necessary for organ transplants. SUS works with other municipal health departments to administer the surgery and make it free for citizens.  

How Do Travelers Access SUS Health Services?

Travelers who want to take advantage of the medical services offered by SUS will need to complete a few steps beforehand.

Step 1: Register

Anyone wishing to access SUS services must first register at a local health unit (Unidade Básica de Saúde, or UBS). It’s the primary healthcare facility responsible for vaccinations, referrals, consultations, and examinations.

The actual registration program requires the following:

  • A valid passport
  • A valid proof of address in Brazil (hotel reservation, utility bill, rental contract)

After the registration process, travelers will receive a Brazilian identification number (Cadastro de Pessoa Física or CPF) from the UBS staff. They will also get a national health card (Cartão Nacional de Saúde or CNS), which is necessary to access some SUS services.

Step 2: Select A Primary Care Provider

The second step will require travelers to select a primary care provider (médico da família). This will be a doctor who oversees and coordinates the healthcare of the traveler.

Choosing a primary care provider from a list provided by UBS is possible, or the staff can automatically assign one. The primary care provider will schedule appointments, offer guidance and education on health issues, and provide curative care.

Step 3: Make An Appointment

For step three, travelers make appointments to see specialists, have surgeries and tests, or gain access to hospitalization services.

Depending on their urgency, the traveler and their primary health provider can make the appointments. However, some services may require referrals from the primary healthcare providers themselves or even from SUS.

Travelers can make appointments online, by phone, at the UBS facilities, or through their primary healthcare provider.

Step 4: Prescriptions

Travelers who need prescriptions can get them at little to no cost from the SUS, subject to availability. Some are available at public pharmacies (Farmácia Popular) or UBS, while others require a specialist or primary healthcare provider.

Travelers must present a valid passport and their national health card (Cartão Nacional de Saúde) to claim their prescription.

Option Step: Emergencies

Emergencies are an unpleasant experience, but planning for them improves your chances of averting a disaster. Fortunately, these services are available 24/7 in Brazil and easily accessible at emergency units (Unidades de Pronto Atendimento or UPA) or public hospitals.

UPA are high-tech facilities that stand at the ready to provide medical care to patients with severe or life-threatening conditions. It may include venomous scorpion or snake bits, drug overdoses, or fatal bodily injuries.

They require the least amount of authorization. There is no need for appointments or referrals;  only a valid passport and CNS.