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Medical tourism in Mexico isn't new, but the recent tragedy put it in the Spotlight


When you cross the U.S.-Mexico border into Matamoros, you immediately see health care facilities - pharmacies, dentists, clinics. More than a million people cross the southern border every year for what's known as medical tourism. The four U.S. citizens who were kidnapped last weekend were among them. Two were killed. Two others are recovering in the U.S.

David Vequist runs the Center for Medical Tourism Research at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAVID VEQUIST: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: According to the group Patients Without Borders, travel to Mexico for medical reasons is now back to pre-pandemic levels. What does your research show in terms of the numbers?

VEQUIST: We're seeing the same thing, and we're expecting to have an increase from what the numbers we saw in 2019. We saw an increase in physical problems during the pandemic and increase in both mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, and then the people had - having put off both preventative care and primary care.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us what some of the most common procedures are that people cross the border for?

VEQUIST: Yeah. The most common, according to research both by our center as well as the CDC, tends to be dental. Most people feel that there's not much quality differences between a dentist, say, you know, south of the border and north of the border. So therefore, their major choice difference is essentially on price. If the quality is the same, then essentially the price makes up more of the value.

SHAPIRO: So dental work is one common procedure. What else?

VEQUIST: Pharmaceuticals - traveling across the border for pharmaceuticals - then come the general surgeries, which includes cosmetics. We found that cosmetics probably make up upwards of about 13%, and that was one of the procedures that one of the victims of this kidnapping was traveling for.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this shows a problem or a failing of the U.S. health care system, or is it sort of like, well, people are looking for a deal, and if they find a better price on one side of the border, they will go there instead of staying on their side of the border?

VEQUIST: There's very little that we can do in terms of this arbitrage. It's like the issues that have been raised in the United States in terms of being built in the United States when it comes to cars or anything else. And people are always going to be looking for what they perceive to be better value. And that could be French wines, or it could be Korean cars. In this case, it happens to be health care that's international. Now, I think this is not something that can necessarily be solved by just investments in infrastructure or even policy changes. It truly is the consumerization of health care.

SHAPIRO: It's obviously very unusual for medical tourism to end in a kidnapping. But tell us about the risks. Is it generally safe?

VEQUIST: So there's two aspects. One, of course, is the quality aspects, and the little data that we do have does show that there doesn't appear to be significant differences. For example, the CDC did some research on self-reported outcomes - bad outcomes that people received from having gone abroad for health care. And when you compare those to U.S. outcomes, they don't appear to be significantly different.

SHAPIRO: So this is generally medically safe. What about in terms of security, like kidnapping and gunfire?

VEQUIST: So what we've seen in medical tourism throughout the world is obviously when people find an area to be unsafe or garners a bad reputation due to criminality and other issues, then people don't tend to go there. What we find is that in many places around the world, there is a - if you will, an unspoken rule that they try to avoid harming tourists, particularly medical tourists, because of the significant economic impacts they can have on the region. A University of Michigan study, for example, showed that for Mexico alone, crime and narcoterrorism and some of the other things that are going on could be costing the country up to 21% of its total GDP.

SHAPIRO: What advice would you give people who are considering crossing the border for a medical procedure?

VEQUIST: Unfortunately, it's going to be buyer beware, which is that you have to get as much information and get as much data as you can before you make that decision.

SHAPIRO: David Vequist runs the Center for Medical Tourism Research at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. Thank you.

VEQUIST: Thank you so much, and I appreciate very much your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.