The recent capture of a quartet of Americans in northern Mexico last week has brought attention to the risks associated with medical tourism: when someone travels abroad to seek medical care that is often cheaper and easier to obtain domestically. According to a friend, one of the four travelers (who was also one of the two survivors) was traveling to Mexico for a procedure, and it was her second time doing so. Her case also highlights how the practice is becoming increasingly common.
A study published in the American Journal of Medicine estimated that fewer than 800,000 Americans traveled to other countries to get medical care in 2007, but by 2017 more than 1 million did so. More recent estimates suggest that the trend of growth has only continued. Mexico is the world’s second most popular destination for medical tourism; an estimated 1.4 million to 3 million people came to reap the benefits of inexpensive treatment in 2020 according to Patients Beyond Borders.
Price is what makes Mexico so enticing for medical tourists. Patients Without Borders also estimated that Americans could save up to 60% on their medical bills if they get treatment there rather than in the states. Plus, Americans give Mexico (which has worked to improve its quality of service for medical tourists) rave reviews: a research paper from 2020 that surveyed 427 Americans crossing the border from California for medical reasons found that a majority “felt that Mexican health care services are of the same or better quality compared with those in the United States, for a lower cost.”
As has been demonstrated, however, medical tourism is not a perfectly safe activity. In the case of the kidnapping, going somewhere as dangerous as Matamoros is exactly the type of decision that the US government has urged Americans to avoid for any reason. On top of the violence in the general region, the city is not seen as a prime destination since it lacks any reputable clinics or medical centers, which only further heightens the additional risk of receiving poor or insufficient care.
The situation in Mexico is not the norm for medical tourists, but it does represent the potential peril that comes with the activity. Even if traveling to a place with a reputation for solid care, there is the other factor to consider: it could be a dangerous area.
Attention to detail, research about providers, and the safety of the area are necessary steps to take, and extreme caution is essential when trying to save on a medical procedure. It could end up costing you something far more than money.