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Medical Tourism in Mexico

December 2009 - by Christa Thomas

Mexico has more to offer than sandy beaches, great food and a lively culture. It can also be the perfect place to get inexpensive medical and dental care.

For years I lived with three broken back teeth because I didn’t want to pay the $2,400 it would cost to have them fixed. I had dental insurance, but it only covered half the cost of crowns—leaving me with a co-pay that I just couldn’t swallow. When I moved to Mexico, I learned that dental care cost far less here. Dr. Maricela Arizmendi came highly recommended and I now know why—she offers professional, caring and affordable dental care in a clean, modern office. The total cost for all three teeth was $750—less than one-third the cost of having them done back home in Canada.

I had learned what many before me already knew—medical tourism pays.

Medical Tourism is the growing phenomenon of people traveling abroad for affordable health care.

In 2008, more than 200,000 Americans traveled outside the U.S. for medical care, and that number is expected to double by 2010, according to Josef Woodman, in his book Patients Beyond Borders. They travel for procedures such as dental work, heart surgery, orthopedics, cosmetic surgery, neurosurgery, fertility treatments, LASIK eye repair, and cancer treatments. Mexico is one of the primary destinations for patients from the U.S. with shorter travel times and the potential to vacation before and after treatment adding to its allure.

It’s not just individuals considering overseas care. Insurers and employers are setting up cross-border health care plans to cover a wide range of elective medical procedures. For example, Blue Shield and Health Net of California offers its members care in Mexico. The outsourcing of health care is turning into a big business.

Medical tourists fall into several categories: 1) those that want elective surgery such as cosmetic or wellness treatments that are not covered by insurance plans; 2) those that are underinsured—high deductibles have many people who are in need of medical care running for the border; and 3) those that are uninsured.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 46 million Americans, or 18 percent of the population under the age of 65, were without health insurance in 2007, their latest data available. Since then, due to the recession, millions more have or will lose their health insurance coverage.

Some medical tourists go abroad for immediate availability of procedures as wait-lists and limited physician choices at home force them to seek out alternative treatment centers.

However, for most, the primary motivation is the significantly lower cost for health care found outside the U.S. or Canada. The cost of medical and dental procedures in Mexico is, on average, about 25 to 50 percent of U.S. costs.

While these savings are alluring, they should only be considered in situations where quality of care is not sacrificed. Along with its many benefits, traveling for your medical treatments can create some additional risks. There is no regulatory oversight of the medical tourism industry, putting the onus on the consumer to determine whether the foreign facility and medical team are qualified. And keep in mind that in many countries, outside the U.S. and Canada, you may have very little legal recourse if something goes wrong. With sound planning and research, many of these risks can be minimized, if not eliminated.

At its June 2008 Annual Meeting, the American Medical Association (AMA) discussed the issues facing Americans seeking medical care outside the U.S., and developed the AMA Guidelines on Medical Tourism. The guidelines are in favor of patient choice, and seek to inform and advise individuals, employers, insurers, and those coordinating international health care about how to ensure the quality and safety of patient care internationally.

One recommendation is that people should only be referred for health care to institutions that have been accredited by recognized international accrediting bodies, such as the Joint Commission International (JCI) or the International Society for Quality in Health Care. The JCI is an arm of the U.S. hospital-accrediting body, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO). The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends using JCI accredited hospitals, stating on its website that to “ensure a higher quality of care abroad, Joint Commission International attempts to continuously improve the safety and quality of care in the international community through the provision of education and consultation services and international accreditation.”

The JCI sets over 350 standards of excellence for international hospitals to meet that ensure the quality and safety of patient care. These standards include patient satisfaction and quality outcomes, medical training of doctors and medical staff, nurse to patient ratios, overall hospital cleanliness, and innovation in medical technology and equipment. JCI has accredited more than 250 facilities in 36 countries, including eight in Mexico.

Hospital CIMA in Hermosillo, Sonora, is JCI accredited. CIMA has partnered with a major U.S. insurance company to offer services to U.S. patients. Blue Cross and Blue Shield members of Companion Global Healthcare Inc. can now seek treatment at CIMA Hermosillo.

Under the agreement, members are covered for procedures such as cardiology, gynecology and orthopedic surgeries. "These are typically very expensive procedures in the U.S., whether you have insurance or you don't," said Steven Foster, CIMA’s CEO. "Surgical procedures run about 60 percent less than the average U.S. procedure," added Foster. An example of the cost savings—a hip replacement in the U.S. would cost $100,000 on average while the average cost at CIMA is $12,000.

Doctors Robert Page and Curtis Page, in their book Mexico: Health and Safety Travel Guide, state that “CIMA, owned and operated by the International Hospital Corporation (IHC) of Dallas, Texas, has strong affiliation with Baylor University Medical School, a highly respected institution which provides updated educational and technical information to physicians and staff. CIMA has scores of highly qualified medical personnel and top-notch facilities that include a state-of-the-art cardiac-care unit and fully equipped emergency ward and intensive care unit. Travelers in need of medical attention will find themselves in excellent hands at CIMA.”

International Hospital Corporation’s website states that doctors in their hospitals receive continuing education from the following educational affiliates and educational partners: Southwestern Medical Center, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, UCLA, the Mayo Clinic and Children’s Hospital Boston. The website further states that the “hospitals are modeled after high-quality facilities operating in the United States and are held accountable by our management to U.S. quality care standards.”

Since moving to Mexico, I have begun using Dr. Roberto Salazar López at CIMA as my family doctor. I am very impressed with both CIMA and Dr. Salazar—from the marble floors throughout the facility to Dr. Salazar’s clean and modern office with its own ultrasound scanner and X-ray viewer. The doctor stores all patient information on his laptop and he can access and input my data at the touch of a button. The level of personal care that I receive from him far exceeds anything I’ve previously experienced. On my first visit, Dr. Salazar gave me his email address. I have since emailed him several times and each time received a response the same day. And I was never charged for these prompt electronic consultations. He accepted me as a client right away (I am still on a waiting list to get a family doctor in Canada), and when I need to see him, I can usually schedule an appointment for the next day.

In addition to CIMA, there are many other Mexican clinics and hospitals that are clean, modern and feature state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment and will provide exceptional care at reduced prices. Many facilities are staffed with English-speaking physicians and medical personnel.

As I discovered, Mexico is also a hotspot for tourists in search of low-cost dental care. High-quality dentists can be found in all of Mexico’s major tourist resorts and large cities, including San Carlos, Los Cabos, Tijuana and Cancun; and even smaller communities such as Los Algodones and San Felipe offer quality dental care. Any treatments available in the U.S. and Canada are also available in Mexico, including caps, dental implants and teeth whitening.

A medical tourism facilitator can help you find the doctor, dentist, hospital or clinic that is right for you. Using a facilitator like BridgeHealth, Healthbase or Companion Global Healthcare may also help alleviate some of the risks associated with medical tourism as these facilitators mainly work with hospitals that are accredited by the Joint Commission International. According to Patients Beyond Borders, these agencies specialize in international medical travel and “work with hospitals, clinics, physicians, surgeons, airlines, hotels and recovery retreats abroad to offer patients the best quality at the most affordable rates.”

One of the biggest advantages to choosing Mexico for your medical care is its proximity to the United States and Canada. In Mexico, you can get reasonably priced medical treatments close to home. And as an added bonus, while abroad, patients also frequently take advantage of the opportunity to take an inexpensive vacation. Recuperating on a sandy beach under a shady palapa while taking in the beautiful scenery may be just what the doctor ordered.

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