Kidnapping and treatment risks come with medical tourism


In March 2023, four “medical tourists” from South Carolina who were seeking health care in Mexico were kidnapped by a drug cartel. Two were killed when they were trapped in a shootout. One of them was scheduled for tummy-tuck surgery, and others were seeking cheaper prescription drugs.

The news reached Bruce Hermann, MD, a plastic surgeon in Denton, Tex., who brought up the incident in a segment of his podcast, “Nip Talk,” in which he talked about the risks of medical tourism. But violence in foreign countries isn’t Dr. Hermann’s primary concern.

“Being the victim of a crime is lower down the risk strata,” Dr. Hermann said in an interview. “A bigger concern is the lack of regulations of doctors and facilities in countries like Mexico.”

The savings from medical tourism may be tempting, but the unpredictable clinical risks are daunting. Some employers pay for treatment at certain foreign clinics, and Blue Shield of California’s HMO plan, Access Baja, covers care in certain clinics in Mexico’s Baja peninsula. But U.S. health insurance generally does not cover medical tourism.

Despite its popularity, medical tourism is not siphoning off a significant number of patients from U.S. doctors, with the possible exception of plastic surgery. One study found that medical tourism accounts for less than 2% of U.S. spending on noncosmetic health care.

Still, as many as 1.2 million Americans travel to Mexico each year seeking health care at lower costs, particularly dental care, bariatric surgery, and cosmetic procedures.

Physicians such as Dr. Hermann see the results when things go awry. Dr. Hermann said when he takes calls at a nearby level II trauma center, he sees, on average, one patient a month with complications from plastic surgeries performed abroad.

Patients tell Dr. Hermann they often had little preoperative time with the surgeons, and some may not even see their surgeon. They have to fly back home just days after their procedures, so complications that typically arise later are missed, he said.

Who opts for medical tourism?

There are few statistics on the number of medical tourists or the clinical problems they have. Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, a medical tourism consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., has developed a profile of medical tourism that is based on his close contacts within the industry.

Mr. Woodman said the vast majority of U.S. medical tourists go to Mexico, which accounts for an estimated 1 million to 1.2 million medical visitors a year. He said Costa Rica is another popular destination, followed by other Latin American countries and some in the Far East, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

Mr. Woodman estimates that dental treatments make up 65% of all medical tourism. Cosmetic procedures come in a distant second, at 15%. Cosmetic procedures can be expensive and are rarely covered by insurance. They can be performed at half the price abroad, he said.

According to Mr. Woodman, other significant fields for medical tourism are orthopedics, which accounts for 5% of all visits, and bariatrics, with 3%-5%. Hip and knee replacements are expensive, and in the case of bariatrics, U.S. insurers often deny coverage, he said.

People also go abroad for fertility care and organ transplants, and one Jamaica company even offered dialysis vacations for U.S. tourists.

On the other hand, medical tourism does not work well for cancer treatments, because cancer care involves long periods of treatment and cannot be completed in a trip or two, Mr. Woodman said. “The media also plays up major procedures like open heart surgery, but they are in fact very rare,” he added.


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