Americans risk danger for cheap health care in Mexico

US citizens snatched in Matamoros were in Mexico for costly treatment that is often too expensive stateside known as medical tourism

A pharmacy stands in Tijuana, Mexico, on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. Data from a U.S. government survey suggest that 150,000 to 320,000 U.S. travelers list health care as a reason for traveling abroad each year. An estimated 952,000 Californians enter Mexico to receive health care annually, including prescription drugs, according to the United States International Trade Commission (USITC). Photographer: Guillermo Arias/Bloomberg
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The four Americans kidnapped at gunpoint in Matamoros, Mexico, on Friday had crossed the border from Texas to seek medical treatment, their families have confirmed — but they never made it to the clinic.

The group from South Carolina, accompanying one member who was travelling for a cosmetic procedure, was apprehended by men carrying assault rifles and wearing bulletproof vests soon after they crossed the border.

Two of the Americans were later found dead, while the two others were found alive.

It is fairly common for Americans to travel to Mexico for medical treatment, where procedures are far cheaper than in the US.

Many Americans who do not have health insurance or who want elective procedures travel south of the border to avoid paying exorbitant fees.

About 1.2 million Americans sought medical treatment in Mexico per year before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Patients Beyond Borders, an international healthcare travel publishing and consulting firm.

While that number dropped significantly during the pandemic, it is now on the rise again, said Josef Woodman, chief executive of Patients Beyond Borders.

The largest number of those seeking treatment in Mexico go for elective cosmetic and dental surgery.

“North American patients travel to Mexico for care primarily to save 50 to 70 per cent over what they would pay in the United States for an elective treatment,” said Mr Woodman.

The difference in cost for surgery and other procedures in the two countries can be drastic. Facelifts cost about $10,350 in the US but in Mexico, they are only $5,150. In the US, gastric band surgery costs on average $17,500, while in Mexico, it costs about $11,500.

Audra Rhodes, an American living in Mexico City, told The National that her mother was quoted $7,000 for dental work in the US.

“She is getting all the same work done for $500 and gets to come visit me,” she said.

Medical tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry in Mexico — and it is not only surgery that attracts Americans but cheaper prescription drugs as well.

Prescription drugs cost more than 170 per cent more in the US compared to Mexico, according to a 2022 report by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

While the quality of care in Mexico can vary, it has made “great strides” in recent years, according to Patients Beyond Borders.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention still warns Americans against travelling abroad for medical treatment.

“Possible infectious complications associated with medical procedures performed outside the United States include wound infections, bloodstream infections, donor-derived infections and acquisition of bloodborne pathogens, including hepatitis B, hepatitis, and HIV,” the CDC cautions on its website.

Sadyk Fayz, a New York board certified aesthetic physician associate, said a huge proportion of his patients consider travelling abroad for care, but adds that it can come with risks.

“While economically, it may make sense to travel abroad to get some of these procedures, eventually what ends up happening is the cost of regrets ends up being a lot higher,” he told The National.

In 2019, several Americans who received treatment at a facility in Tijuana returned with an antibiotic-resistant superbug, which led to complications requiring further treatment in the US.

And while many parts of Mexico are safe, the border states, including Matamoros in the state of Tamaulipas, is rife with drug cartel activity.

The State Department warns Americans not to travel to the city.

“Criminal groups target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles travelling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers and demanding ransom payments,” the State Department's travel advisory says.

Jaime Lopez-Aranda, a senior security manager at International SOS, a travel risk mitigation company, said the border area is especially dangerous.

“In particular, the border, as we have seen recently, there have been a number of violent incidents and it does entail risk for travellers in the area and for the domestic population as well,” he told The National.

Updated: March 08, 2023, 3:28 PM