Thousands of Americans travel abroad yearly for medical treatment, looking to reap the benefits of high-quality health care at substantially lower costs.
However, the recent murder of two U.S. citizens in Mexico underscores the inherent risks associated with medical tourism.
“Sometimes, people try to do their research [but] they don’t work through certified agencies,” said Jonathan Edelheit, co-founder and chairman of the Medical Tourism Association (MTA).
“What ends up happening is, they choose a place that isn’t safe for the lowest price that doesn’t have quality or safety.”
Mexican drug cartel members killed two vacationing U.S. citizens and kidnapped two others last week while the tourists were driving to Matamoros near the southern U.S. border.
One of the travelers reportedly was scheduled for a “tummy tuck” cosmetic procedure when the group encountered the criminals.
Authorities rescued two members of the group and returned them safely to the United States.
In the wake of the killings, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” warning, the system’s highest alert, given the extreme violence between battling drug cartels in Matamoros.
No ‘Chilling Effect’
Edelheit said that while the incident may affect some medical tourism to Mexico, it won’t have any chilling effect on the industry’s growth.
“The growth is substantial, and many people travel for high-quality, affordable care. Most of the industry focuses on doing business the right way,” he said.
The MTA is a nonprofit organization to promote awareness and best practices regarding medical travel, a $100 billion global industry.
As a rule, Edelheit said Americans prefer Mexico for medical procedures because of its proximity and high-quality, lower-cost health care.
While many areas of Mexico are generally safe for medical tourism, many rural parts of the country are crime-ridden and recommended as off-limits for U.S. travelers. The MTA would never recommend travel to Matamoros, he said, because of the State Department’s advisory.
According to State Department data, 25 U.S. citizens died by homicide in Mexico between January and June 2022. The number was triple that from all of 2021.
Edelheit said many parts of Mexico are still desirable for medical tourism—Cancún, for example.
Patients Beyond Borders reports that U.S. medical tourists in Mexico can expect to save 40 to 60 percent on medical costs depending on the procedure.
Edelheit said many Americans travel to Mexico for dental implants, weight loss surgery, and cosmetic procedures, which are considerably more expensive in the United States.
“It’s pretty substantial,” Edelheit said. “If you do it right, you’re going to the top doctor in a top facility [in another country].”
Other popular destinations for U.S. medical travelers include Thailand (which generally provides savings of 50 to 75 percent), Costa Rica (45 to 65 percent), South Korea (30 to 45 percent), and India (60 to 90 percent), where many cardiovascular procedures take place.
The number of medical tourists from the United States almost doubled to 1.4 million in 2017 from 750,000 in 2007, according to Health-Tourism.com.
Two of the safest places for medical tourism are Panama and Costa Rica, Edelheit said.
“If you’re uncomfortable with Mexico, you can go to Costa Rica, which is extremely safe. This kind of thing [in Matamoros] would never happen,” he said.
Dental implants might run to $60,000 in Florida but only $15,000 in Costa Rica.
Edelheit said many people lack the disposable income they once had before COVID-19, and meanwhile medical costs keep increasing.
“Usually, they’ll have to save a couple of thousand dollars, or it wouldn’t make sense [to travel abroad],” Edelheit said.
He said the four main reasons to choose medical tourism are better quality and affordability of care, access to services, shorter wait times, and the availability of treatments and medication.
Edelheit said it’s wise to work through an accredited medical tourism facilitator in planning a trip abroad.
A medical tourism facilitator is an organization or company that works like a concierge to take the guesswork and hassle out of medical travel.
Services include working out travel arrangements with patients, accredited hospitals, and doctors before treatment or procedure and during aftercare.
Passport Medical International is one accredited medical tourism facilitator based in Vancouver, Canada. Company founder and CEO Travis Kraft said a crucial consideration is whether the hospital, clinic, and medical staff are top quality and accredited.
“Many other medical tourism facilitation companies offer [services in] as many as 40 or 50 countries and sometimes over 100 doctors,” Kraft said.
“How do you know who you are sending your patients to? … We want to make sure we know our partners and know them well. That takes the guesswork out of a person choosing a physician.”
Kraft viewed the tragic encounter in Matamoros as an “isolated incident” that shouldn’t deter medical travel.
“Any time anything happens in Cancun or Mexico, it gets expedited in the media,” he said.
Edelheit advised that when planning a medical trip, research the location, know the laws, and adhere to travel advisories.
“I’ve never had a problem traveling in Mexico. I do a tremendous amount of research—where I’m going and staying. I make sure I’m going to safe places,” Edelheit said.
“You have to be very careful, and this goes for any international travel.”