Kidnappings in Mexico highlight medical tourism

The kidnapping of four Americans who allegedly traveled to Mexico so someone could undergo a “tummy tuck” has brought attention to the growing medical tourism market south of the US border, where dental procedures, cosmetic surgery, fertility treatments and even Veterinary care is typically cheaper than in the United States.

Friday’s attack in Matamoros, which claimed two lives and was described by the medical tourism industry as a rare incident of violence, did not appear to deter American patients, according to Mexican tourism officials, travel agencies and doctors.

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Before sunrise on Wednesday, Evelyn Ballard crossed the bridge from Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, where she was scheduled for liposuction.

The news of the deaths made her nervous, she said, but she was reluctant to cancel the appointment. She said she’s saving about $1,000 by having the procedure done in Mexico, even after accounting for hotel and airfare costs from her hometown of Houma, La. She had already paid the cost of the surgery and didn’t want to risk losing her. money.

“We took precautions before we arrived, getting rid of a lot of things that could have been stolen or even cost us our lives,” said Ballard, who left her jewelry behind.

Alfredo Pedraza, president of the Matamoros Health Tourism Committee, called the attack on Americans “an isolated case” that he hoped would not harm the region’s health industry.

He works in one of the “health groups” that have become popular along the Mexican border; this includes two hospitals and several medical and dental offices, laboratories and other services. For added security, the cluster provides free transportation for patients crossing the Texas border. But, Pedraza noted, many Americans arrive in Matamoros by private car to also shop and dine at restaurants.

“It’s even very common for them to bring their animals to the vet here,” said Pedraza. “It’s a cycle we’ve had for many years.”

In fact, the influx of American medical tourists is so common that at the San Diego-Tijuana border there is a dedicated traffic lane designed to expedite these visitors’ entry into Mexico.

Americans often look to other countries for dental care, surgery, fertility treatments, organ transplants and cancer treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mexico is the most popular destination, accounting for more than 40% of medical tourism trips, according to a 2016 CDC survey.

The survey found that the prevalence of medical tourism was higher among Hispanics and people without health insurance.

US residents made 1.2 million trips to Mexico for medical and dental care in 2019, drawn by substantially lower costs, improved quality of care and sometimes a better patient experience than at home, Josef said. Woodman, founder of Patients Beyond Borders, a North Carolina-based consulting firm for the medical tourism industry.

According to data collected by Patients Beyond Borders, a dental implant with an acrylic crown that would cost US$3,400 in the United States costs an average of US$1,650 in Mexico. A coronary artery bypass priced at $73,000 in the United States would cost $27,300 in Mexico.

In the days following the Matamoros kidnappings, Woodman said, he was inundated with phone calls and emails from people interested in seeking medical attention across the border. None expressed concern about the violence.

“The risks are astronomically low,” Woodman said.

While the risk of violence impacts Mexico’s tourism economy, medical tourism is a thriving industry that INEGI, the Mexican government’s statistics agency, calculated that it generated more than $137 million in 2021, the latest available figure.

About 65 to 70 percent of cross-border trips are for dental care, Woodman said. A Mexican city, Los Algodones, located near Yuma, Arizona, is known as “Molar City” because of the 300 dental offices in it. Another 15% of visits are for cosmetic care and 5% are for bariatric surgery or weight loss, he said. The remaining 10% is for a wide variety of procedures, led by orthopedic care.

The data does not include Mexican nationals living in the United States who frequently return to their home country for medical care, he said.

It’s hard to pinpoint precise numbers, as they cover everything from cross-border US residents who cross frequently for routine appointments – checkups, flu, ankle sprain – to people seeking major surgery for cancer, prosthetics hip replacements or organ transplants.

Some Mexican states also include family members who accompany the patient on their “medical tourism”.

Some companies are trying to put distance between their businesses and the tragedy, both figuratively and literally.

Each month, about 25 to 30 My Medical Vacations customers from the United States and Canada travel for weight loss surgery, cosmetic procedures, fertility treatments, sports injuries, hip replacements and other services, according to Andres Jurado, co-founder and CEO of the all-inclusive medical travel company.

His company brings clients to Cancun, one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations, while “the place where this happened is a long way from where we are,” Jurado said. “It’s the same distance between Houston and Chicago.”

David Mora, chief executive of Health & Wellness Bazaar, a network of medical providers that organizes all-inclusive trips to procedures in Tijuana, said customers have contacted them with safety concerns, but none have cancelled.

“Interestingly, we’ve seen a huge increase in visitors to our site,” Mora said, “possibly because of the news that broke this week and the medical tourism across the internet.”

While Woodman said the pandemic has reduced medical tourism visits to Mexico by at least 50% in 2020, the strains the coronavirus has put on the US medical system, along with inflation, are driving many people to look outside the country again. .

“This is the perfect storm,” said David Vequist, founder of the Medical Tourism Research Center in San Antonio.

Huge numbers of Americans who put off preventive care during the pandemic are now seeking treatment for conditions that have progressed, only to find that health care has become more expensive.

“People are literally being driven to look for alternatives,” Vequist said. “These factors drove someone from South Carolina to cross the border into a location that the State Department has the highest threat level,” he said, referring to the kidnapped group.

International markets keep changing and new opportunities open up.

Mexico is increasingly a destination for surrogacy, which was commonly provided in Ukraine before the Russian invasion.

Pamela Parker, an obstetrician and gynecologist who worked until recently in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, said young women routinely crossed the border to buy abortion pills after the state enacted a near-total ban on the procedures in 2021.

The long-running Covid has also driven people to travel in search of experimental treatments, including apheresis, or “blood washing”, to eliminate clots associated with prolonged symptoms.

But there can be risks in the care itself. The 2016 CDC study found that 5% of medical tourists reported complications from treatments received abroad, and 67% sought care upon returning to the United States.

The CDC — which lists the potential for infection, antibiotic resistance, poor quality care and communication challenges, and the heightened risk of thrombosis in air travel — recommends that patients consult their U.S. physician before departing and arrange for follow-up abroad. and after your return.

Jonathan Edelheit, chief executive of the Medical Tourism Association, a non-profit portal for potential patients, providers, employers and insurers, emphasized the importance of doing research and being prepared to fly to specialist destinations rather than simply crossing the border.

“There’s a huge mix of mediocre to poor quality services across the border,” said Edelheit, who recommended that travelers work through accredited agencies rather than signing up for the cheapest offer available online. He advises seeking certification with the Global Healthcare Accreditation, which has developed international standards for medical tourism and publishes a list of internationally accredited hospitals. Some Mexican hospitals are accredited by the Joint Commission International.

Medical tourists who carefully scrutinize destinations can find high-quality care in many places in Mexico, said Edelheit, who is preparing to accompany a relative for care.

Travelers can use online platforms like the Better Business Bureau “to make sure you have information from real patients who have been on similar trips recently,” Jose Pedro S. Garcia, a spokesperson for medical tourism facilitator MedicalMex, said in an e-mail. mail.

Garcia emphasized that travelers should check the US Department of State advisories for the specific destinations they are seeking procedures in, as safety concerns differ significantly from state to state, city to city and even neighborhood to neighborhood. They should also ask medical travel operators where the treatment will take place, what travel logistics the company is providing and what safety precautions are in place for customers.

If things go wrong, there are few recourses for those who receive substandard care outside the United States.

“It would be extraordinarily difficult to collect damages,” Vequist said.

Officials working in medical tourism in Tamaulipas said they had never heard of an incident like the kidnapped Americans.

“I think it’s the first case we’ve had of this type, where someone comes for a medical reason and this kind of thing happens,” said Ricardo Vilet, director of tourism promotion for the state.

He said that in most border towns, medical tourism facilities – doctors’ offices, dental clinics, pharmacies – are located close to the bridges that connect the two countries. “You don’t have to go very far across the state or city,” he said.

Estela Moreno, president of the Medical Tourism Business Council in Reynosa, said her hospital sends out a special vehicle to pick up medical tourists as they cross the international pedestrian bridge in McAllen, Texas.

“They don’t even have to bring the car,” she said. “We found a mechanism to make people feel safe. They will reach their destination. Everything is under control.”

Federal security forces guard the medical district, in addition to state and local police, she added.

“I spent 12 or 13 years transferring patients here,” she said. “We’ve never had a stolen wallet.”

– – –

Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul in Mexico City and Rich Matthews contributed to this report.

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Video: Just days after four Americans were kidnapped in Matamoros, Mexico, more Americans were crossing the Texas border seeking medical treatment. Two of the kidnapped Americans were found dead. (Rich Matthews/The Washington Post)

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