Medical tourism to Mexico is on the rise, but it can come with risks
(CNN) — One of the four Americans who were kidnapped in Mexico last week was traveling for medical tourism, a friend said. A growing number of US residents are traveling internationally to seek more affordable medical care, more timely care or access to certain treatments or procedures that are unapproved or unavailable in the United States.
Latavia “Tay” Washington McGee, 33, drove to Mexico with Shaeed Woodard, Zindell Brown and Eric Williams for cosmetic surgery that was scheduled to take place Friday, according to a close friend of Washington McGee’s who did not want to be identified.
The four Americans were found Tuesday near the border city of Matamoros, officials said. Washington McGee and Williams were found alive, and Woodard and Brown were found dead, a US official familiar with the investigation told CNN. Investigators are still piecing together what happened after they were abducted.
Medical tourism takes people all over the world, including to Mexico, India and Eastern Europe. Violence against medical tourists is generally thought to be rare, but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns about other risks such as quality of care, infection control and communication challenges with medical staff.
“It’s on the daily, without a doubt. There are people going daily to get this kind of stuff done,” said Dr. Nolan Perez, a gastroenterologist in Brownsville, Texas, which is across the border from Matamoros. “Whether it’s primary care provider visits or dental procedures or something more significant, like elective or weight loss surgery, there’s no doubt that people are doing that because of low cost and easier access.”
A growing trend
One study published in the American Journal of Medicine estimated that fewer than 800,000 Americans traveled to other countries for medical care in 2007, but by 2017, more than 1 million did.
More current estimates suggest that those numbers have continued to grow.
“People travel because there may be a long waiting time, wait lists or other reasons why they can’t get treatment as quickly as they would like it. So they explore their options outside the United States to see what’s available,” said Elizabeth Ziemba, president of Medical Tourism Training, which provides training and accreditation to international health travel organizations.
Also, “price is a big issue in the United States. We know that the US health care system is incredibly expensive,” she added. “Even for people with insurance, there may be high deductibles or out-of-pocket costs that are not covered by insurance, so that people will look based on price for what’s available in other destinations.”
The most common procedures that prompt medical tourism trips include dental care, surgery, cosmetic surgery, fertility treatments, organ and tissue transplants and cancer treatment, according to the CDC.
“With Mexico and Costa Rica, it’s overwhelmingly dental and cosmetic surgery. However, certain countries are known for specialties. For example, in Singapore, stem cell and oncology is huge. In India, South India and Chennai Apollo hospitals does incredible work with hip and knee surgeries,” said Josef Woodman, founder of Patients Beyond Borders, an international health care consulting company.
“In Eastern Europe, a lot of people from the UK — but also people from the United States — travel to Hungary, Croatia and Turkey for everything from dental to light cosmetic surgery,” he said.
Mexico is the second most popular destination for medical tourism globally, with an estimated 1.4 million to 3 million people coming into the country to take advantage of inexpensive treatment in 2020, according to Patients Beyond Borders.
Matamoros — where officials said the four kidnapped Americans were found — is “not considered a primary medical travel destination,” Woodman said, “largely because there are no internationally accredited medical centers/specialty clinics there or in the immediate region.”
Mexico City, Cancun and Tijuana are more frequented and reliable destinations in the country, Woodman said.
On average, Americans can save 40% to 60% across the most common major procedures received by medical tourists in Mexico, according to an analysis of 2020 health ministry data conducted by Patients Beyond Borders.
Woodman said that violence against medical tourists was extremely rare, but he added that “price shopping” — searching for the cheapest location for a procedure — is a “blueprint for trouble,” namely substandard medical care.
‘There are the complexities’
Medical tourism can be dangerous, depending on the destination and the person’s condition.
“There are the complexities of traveling if you have a medically complex situation. There are fit-to-fly rules. And your health care providers should take into consideration the impact of traveling if you have orthopedic injuries or issues,” Ziemba said.
“The quality of care may be an unknown,” she said. “It may be that the quality of care is not up to the standards that you would like. So there’s a bit of an unknown there, and then the last thing I would say is, if something goes wrong, what’s going to happen?”
Perez said he commonly manages complications from medical tourism in his practice.
“There are a lot of bad outcomes. There are a lot of infections and a lot of botched procedures gone wrong, and patients have to come back to the United States and then have a revision of the surgery,” he said. “So it’s really unfortunate.”
Yet Ziemba added that there can be benefits to medical tourism, including that someone could receive a service that they need faster overseas than locally.
“And price: If you simply can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs of health care in the United States, and assuming the risks involved, it may make much more sense for you financially to travel outside the United States,” she said.
Medical tourism is not just for people traveling around the world. Many living along the US-Mexico border, where access to health care can be scarce, cross into Mexico for care.
The Rio Grande Valley, at the southernmost point of Texas, is considered to be a medically underserved area. The region has some of the nation’s highest rates of comorbidities, including obesity and diabetes, and one of the lowest physician-to-patient ratios.
There is a “dire need” for health care professionals along the border, Perez said.
“There are not as many doctors given our big and our growing population down here. So the demands on primary care doctors and specialists are very high because there are not enough of us for this population,” he said. “So that’s one reason why people end up going to Mexico to visit with physicians, because of easier access.”
People interested in medical tourism can take some steps to help minimize their risk, the CDC says.
Those planning to travel to another country for medical care should see their health care provider or a travel medicine provider at least four to six weeks before the trip and get international travel health insurance that covers medical evacuation back to the United States.
The CDC advises taking copies of your medical records with you and checking the qualifications of the providers who will be overseeing your medical care. Also, make sure you can get any follow-up care you may need.