Under its current constitution, Laos is a fledgling country, and it has made great strides in reducing poverty and increasing healthcare coverage since the 1990s. In 1988, the Lao life expectancy was 49 years; In 2020, it was 69 years. With the help of the Australian government and several international organisations, the Lao government aims to implement universal health coverage by 2025.

While the Laotian healthcare system has made massive improvements, it is still underdeveloped, and expats will most likely look to private and international healthcare options.

Health insurance in Laos

There is a mix of public and private health insurance in Laos, and different health insurance schemes apply to different income groups, depending on whether they are civil servants, state or private employees, informal workers or belong to low-income households.

Covering only 20 percent of the country's population, the public health insurance is inadequate, and expats will likely opt for private, international insurance that accounts for emergency medical treatment in Thailand or further abroad.

Public healthcare in Laos

Due to the Lao government's history as a centralised bureaucracy, many services are distributed unequally, and healthcare is no exception. As a result, the vast majority of health facilities are concentrated in the main cities, covering only 20 percent of the population.

The Lao ministry of health has worked to devolve healthcare administration to provincial and district levels as well, in hopes that this will empower local governments to better provide for their people. Village medical workers operating out of local infirmaries and dispensaries are responsible for much of the country's medical care, often using only traditional medicinal herbs.

Private healthcare in Laos

In Vientiane, the French and Australian embassies operate their own paid medical services with well-trained doctors and good medical facilities. Many wealthier Laotians and expats will go to Thailand for medical care, and the Friendship Bridge allows Thai ambulances into Vientiane and Lao ambulances into Thailand.

Pharmacies and medicines in Laos

Local pharmacies and drug shops are not well regulated, and this has caused some public health problems in Laos, including misprescribed medications and dosages. Some shop owners sell 'cure-all' packets with antibiotics, vitamins and fever meds as single doses for a wide range of complaints. Laos also has issues with counterfeit pharmaceuticals, compounding the difficulty in finding good medicine.

Expats who take chronic medication should ideally bring a supply from home, accompanied by a prescription verifying that it is for personal use. Within Laos, expats should use only the most reputable pharmacies.

Health hazards in Laos

There is a host of water- and vector-borne diseases to look out for in Laos, including typhoid, hepatitis A, diarrhea, dengue fever, malaria and avian flu. These are especially prevalent during the rainy season floods, when pools of water provide a breeding ground for mosquitos and animal and human waste is introduced to the water system.

Expats should ensure their home is equipped with a good water purifier or filter. Tap water is not fit for drinking untreated, and many houses have water barrels for collected rain water. When eating out, expats should err on the side of caution and avoid ordering drinks with ice cubes that may be made with untreated water.

With the double threat of malaria and dengue fever, expats should take all the necessary precautions against mosquito bites, such as wearing long pants, long sleeves and using mosquito repellent. They should also consider the dengue vaccine as well as malarial prophylactic medicine.

Emergency services in Laos

Emergency telephone numbers:

  • Fire: 1190
  • Police: 1191
  • Tourist police: 1192
  • Ambulance: 1195

In the case of a medical emergency, it is unlikely that expats will reach an English-speaking operator, and if possible, they should call a private hospital to arrange medical transport. Most private insurers will provide an emergency number.