Medical tourism in Mexico is on the rise, but it also carries risks

(CNN) — One of the four Americans kidnapped in Mexico last week traveled to that country for medical tourism, according to a friend of the person. More and more residents of the United States are going abroad in search of more affordable, more timely medical care or to access certain treatments or procedures that are not approved or available in the US.

Latavia “Tay” Washington McGee, 33, drove to Mexico along with Shaeed Woodard, Zindell Brown and Eric Williams to undergo cosmetic surgery that was scheduled for Friday, according to a close friend from Washington, who did not want to be identified.

The four Americans were found Tuesday near the border city of Matamoros, authorities said. Washington McGee and Williams were found alive, but Woodard and Brown were dead, a US official familiar with the case told CNN. Investigators are still piecing together what happened after they were abducted.

Medical tourism drives people from all over the world to travel to destinations like Mexico, India and Eastern Europe. Violence against medical tourists is generally thought to be rare, but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns of other risks. These include quality of care, infection control, and communication problems with medical personnel.

“It’s a daily thing, for sure. There are people who travel daily to get these kinds of things done,” said Dr. Nolan Perez, a gastroenterologist in Brownsville, Texas, which is just across the border from Matamoros. “Whether it’s primary care provider visits or dental procedures, or something more significant like elective or weight loss surgeries, there’s no question that people are doing that because of the low cost and easier access.” he explained.

an upward trend

A study, published in the academic journal American Journal of Medicine, estimated that in 2007 fewer than 800,000 Americans traveled internationally for medical care, but in 2017 that number rose to more than 1 million.

More current calculations suggest that that number has continued to grow.

“People travel because wait times can be too long, waiting lists are too long, or other reasons they can’t get treatment as quickly as they’d like. So they explore their options outside of 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 American health system is incredibly expensive,” he added. “Even for people with insurance, there can be high deductibles or out-of-pocket costs not covered by insurance, so people will look for what’s available in other destinations based on price,” she explained.

According to the CDC, the most common procedures driving medical tourism trips include dental care, surgery, cosmetic surgery, fertility treatments, organ and tissue transplants, and cancer treatment.

“In Mexico and Costa Rica it is mostly dental and cosmetic surgery. However, some countries are known for their specialties. For example, in Singapore, stem cells and oncology are huge. In India, the hospitals in South India and Chennai Apollo do an incredible job with hip and knee surgeries,” explained Josef Woodman, founder of Patients Beyond Borders, an international health care consultancy firm.

“In Eastern Europe, a lot of people from the UK, but also from the US, 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 worldwide, with an estimated 1.4 million to 3 million people arriving in the country in 2020 to take advantage of low-cost treatments in 2020, according to Patients Beyond Borders.

Matamoros, where authorities reported finding the four kidnapped Americans, “is not considered a top medical tourism destination,” Woodman said, “in large part because there are no internationally accredited health centers or specialized clinics there or in the immediate region. “.

Mexico City, Cancun and Tijuana are the most frequented and reliable destinations in the country, Woodman said.

On average, Americans can save between 40% and 60% on the most common major procedures undergone by medical tourists in Mexico, according to an analysis of 2020 Ministry of Health data by Patients Beyond Borders.

Woodman said violence against tourists seeking medical attention was extremely rare, but added that “seeking for better prices” or looking for the cheapest place for a procedure is a “harbinger of trouble,” meaning medical attention deficient.

“There are complexities”

Medical tourism can be dangerous, depending on the destination and the state of health of the person.

“There are complexities to traveling if you have a difficult medical situation. There are fitness-to-fly standards. And health professionals need to consider the impact of travel if you have injuries or orthopedic problems,” Ziemba explains.

“The quality of care can be a question mark. The quality of care may not be up to what you’d like. So there’s a bit of a question mark there, and then the last thing I would say is, if anything goes wrong, what will happen?”

PĂ©rez explains that in his office he usually treats complications derived from medical tourism.

“There are a lot of bad outcomes. There are a lot of infections and a lot of procedures that go wrong, and patients have to come back to the United States and have a revision surgery,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate.”

However, Ziemba added that medical tourism can have advantages, such as someone receiving a health service they need faster abroad than in their own country.

“And the price: if you simply can’t afford health care in the United States, and understanding the risks that come with it, it may make much more economic sense to travel outside of the United States,” he said.

Medical tourism is not just for people traveling all over the world. Many of those who live on the US-Mexico border, where access to health care can be poor, cross into Mexico in search of medical services.

The Rio Grande Valley, in the southern tip of Texas, is considered a health-shortage area. The region has some of the highest rates in the country of comorbidities, such as obesity and diabetes, and one of the lowest physician-to-patient ratios.

There is a “pressing need” for health professionals along the border, Perez said.

“There aren’t that many doctors given our large size and growing population down here. So the demand for primary care physicians and specialists is very high because we are not enough for this population,” he said. “So that’s one of the reasons people end up going to Mexico to see doctors, because of the ease of access.”

People interested in medical tourism can take a few steps to help minimize their risk, the CDC says.

Those who plan to travel to another country for medical care should consult their health care provider or a travel medicine provider at least four to six weeks before travel and obtain international travel medical insurance that covers medical evacuation of I return to the United States.

The CDC advises carrying copies of your medical records and checking the credentials of the professionals who will be overseeing your medical care. Also make sure you can get any follow-up care you need.

— Caroll Alvarado, David Shortell, Abel Alvarado and Kyla Russell contributed reporting.

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