Medical Tourism Advances in Mexico

Long viewed as an affordable alternative to the high-cost U.S. health care system, medical tourism in Mexico is entering a new phase of business integration, binational coordination and technological advance. Amid these developments, optimism was rife at the 6th Annual Medical Tourism Congress held this week in the Mexican coastal city of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.

Drawing scores of health care professionals and marketeers from across North America, the event also featured the participation of officials from the three branches of the Mexican government and representatives of tourism agencies from the northern border states of Chihuahua, Baja California, Sonora, Tamaulipas and Coahuila.

Carlos Arceo, president of the Medical Tourism Congress, told an audience that definite progress had been registered in the field since the beginning of the Pena Nieto administration in 2012.

“We are seeing real things,” Arceo said, citing as examples the christening of a $100 million medical complex in the Baja resort of Los Cabos and $50 million in new Tijuana investments.

Enrique Ramos Flores, Jalisco state tourism secretary, estimated that medical tourism brought in more than two billion dollars nationwide in 2014, with a 7 percent increase anticipated for 2015 and coming years.
Ramos called medical tourism an “excellent opportunity for our state,” which includes Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, as well as the expatriate enclaves of Lake Chapala and Banderas Bay, home of Puerto Vallarta.

Ramos pledged to showcase medical tourism at the 2016 edition of Mexico’s annual Tourism Tianguis scheduled next spring for Guadalajara.

“Let’s hope this congress leaves Puerto Vallarta and Mexico many things,” weighed in Arturo Davalos Pena, Puerto Vallarta’s new mayor. According to Mexican Tourism Secretary Enrique Octavio de la Madrid, more than one milion medical tourists visit Mexico every year.

Convened on December 7 and 8, the two-day event matched Mexican health care providers with the “20 most important” facilitators (brokers)from the U.S.,” in  Arceo’s words, while addressing topics that encompassed marketing,  insurance coverage, specialized treatments, dental tourism, and business strategies.

Private companies and government institutions distributed glossy brochures containing summaries of medical treatments, links to Internet sites connecting potential patients with willing providers, travel tips, and toll-free informational numbers. Additional stands were dedicated to surrogate parenting, fertility, hair resoration, and lyme disease.

According to an informational pamphlet distributed at the Puerto Vallarta gathering, the muncipal government of Tijuana even sponsors a fast border crossing lane back into the U.S.  that was established for people receiving certain medical services.  And there were pitches for expanded tourism to places such as Mexicali’s 20 casinos or the Guadalupe Valley wine country near Ensenada on the Baja Peninsula.

In the eyes of Mexican medical tourism promoters, going to the doctor or dentist does not have to be a somber experience.
Of course, cost savings are foremost on the mind of foreigners seeking health care in Mexico. Published by, cost comparisons contrast price differentials for procedures peforrmed in the U.S. and Baja California.

For example, a hysterectomy costing $15,000 in the U.S. will command $5,800 in Baja.

Dr. Alma Laura Bonilla, medical director for the SSD Medical Group in Tijuana, told FNS that her institution has witnessed an increase in Canadian and U.S. patients on the order of 35 percent during the last five years.

While Canadian patients come to beat longer waiting times for services back home, U.S. patients look for much lower costs and a more personalized treatment than is possible to attain north of the border, Bonilla said.
Bonilla held that the U.S. patient roll would likely be even higher if Medicare payments were permitted for services in Mexico. The question frequently comes up in calls from the U.S., Bonilla said. “They all ask: Do you accept Medicare…almost all ask,” Bonilla said.

The SSD Medical Group will pick up prospective patients at San Diego’s international airport and drive them to Tijuana, she emphasized.

Now heading into its seventh year, the privately organized Mexico Medical Tourism Congress displayed the growing sophistication of services offered in the country while showcasing the growing integration of private healthcare providers, government agencies and academic institutions in an emerging transnational health care system that, while far from being in the service of the masses at this juncture, nevertheless both reflects and shapes trends underway in the three member nations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Carola Cid, international ambassador for the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) outlined for FNS,  the California university’s involvement with binational health care, running the gamut from state-of-the-art care for patients airlifted from Mexico to professional exchanges. Currently,  UCSD counts on five hospitals covering general as well a specialized care, Cid said.

“We give medical training and updated to Mexican hospitals and doctors in new technologies on the one hand and we have tele-medicine in which doctors can give consultations via satellite,” she said.

Longstanding relationships between her university and the Mexican health care sector were formalized during the last five years, focusing on broader patient care and professionalization, Cid detailed.
Cid added that the Mexico-related patient load attended by UCSD breaks down about 50-50, with approimately half the patients made up of tourists who have suffered accidents or heart attacks while south of the border and the other half consisting of Mexican nationals from places like Mexico City.

Perhaps the most ambitious project presented at the Puerto Vallarta meeting was the new Ciudad Juarez medical tourism cluster. Formalized last month, the cluster has signed on business chambers, non-generics pharmacies, hotels, the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, the Tec de Monterrey, and about 2,000 medical, dental and ophthalmology professionals, said Antonio Suarez, the cluster’s commercial director.

In an interview with FNS, Suarez sketched out a cluster that goes beyond medical tourism per se and envisions serving a wide swath of the Paso del Norte region of Juarez, El Paso and New Mexico.

“We go from psychology to transplants, heart surgery or any speciality,” Suarez said. “That is where we broke the mold. We didn’t want a rich foundation or families lording over, and (we’re) making this a comprehensive cluster.”
Though Juarez has hosted medical tourism of one sort or another for a century or more and efforts to specifically promote the business segment go back decades, Suarez said the new cluster has, “for the first time,” brought a full range of services and organizations together. “We’re the only (Mexican city) that offers a city effort,” Suarez said.

Once a sports professional in the U.S,  Suarez insisted that all medical procedures performed in Juarez will fall below U.S. costs, giving as an example an $80,000 hip replacement carrying a 10 percent deductible in the United States that would cost $7,000 in Juarez.

To pay for health care, Suarez said the cluster is working on a private insurance product that will be affordable for middle-class Juarenses in addition to their neighbors across the border.  Suarez maintained that a “border economy” defines the Paso del Norte region. In this sense,  as many as 20,000 El Pasoans are currently enrolled in the Mexican government’s Seguro Popular health insurance program geared for low-income people.

“If only Donald Trump knew that,” Suarez chuckled.

For an expanded system of insurance coverage, Suarez expressed interest in speaking with El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke and other political leaders about allowing Medicare payments or other direct contracts for treatments of U.S. residents in Mexico, a proposal which has gotten some debate in the past but is currently in political limbo.

“I think we can eventually reach an agreement,” Suarez said.

In another presentation, a representative of the federal government’s Secretariat of Tourism gave a broad overview of the medical tourism sector, telling an audience that it was folded into the Pena Nieto administration’s 2012 National Development Plan.

Since then, Mexico has received increased recogntion as major actor in international medical tourism alongside countries that include Thailand, Costa Rica and Brazil, said a spokesman for Tourism Secretary de la Madrid.
But the official said important gaps existed in quantifying the impact of medical tourism in Mexico, with differing statistics constituting an “Achilles Heel” of the sector. “We need to be more precise,” he urged. “We need to redouble our efforts to work with municipalities, states and service providers.”

The Seventh edition of the Mexican Medical Tourism Congress is scheduled for Tijuana in late 2016.

-Kent Paterson

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