Medical tourism has been growing in popularity for years and not just in Mexico.

BROWNSVILLE, TX – the recent kidnapping of four Americans in Mexico highlights a common practice for many people in the US: traveling to other countries for health care that is either not available at home or is much less expensive.

Four were kidnapped — which resulted in the death of two — during a trip to Mexico, which, according to a relative, was for cosmetic surgery.

People are leaving the U.S. for dental procedures, plastic surgery, cancer treatment and prescription drugs, experts say. Besides Mexico, other common destinations include Canada, India and Thailand.

Here’s a closer look at the practice.


According to Lydia Gunn, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke who studies the practice, medical tourism has been gaining popularity for years.

This trip is popular with people who don’t have health insurance or plans that force them to pay thousands of dollars before coverage kicks in.

Large employers also sometimes send people covered by their insurance to other countries for hip or knee replacement or bariatric surgery. Some also send people to Mexico for expensive prescription drugs.

Cost is an important factor. Treatment in countries like Mexico can be more than 50% cheaper than in the United States, according to Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the nonprofit Medical Tourism Association, an industry trade group.

And cosmetic surgeries like tummy tucks, which cost thousands of dollars, are mostly not covered by US health insurance companies.

Patients also sometimes travel because they can access some care outside of the US more quickly. They may also want to see a doctor who speaks their language or comes from the same culture.


This is according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention millions of US residents to go abroad for care every year.

Researcher Arturo Bustamante estimated that about 400,000 people traveled from the US to Mexico each year for help before COVID-19 emerged. A professor of health policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the number fell in response to the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders, but then quickly recovered.

Most of the people who visit Mexico for help are Mexican or Latino immigrants living in the United States, he said.

Non-Hispanic patients mostly cross the border for dental work, to purchase prescription drugs or to receive care such as plastic surgery or certain cancer treatments that are not covered in the U.S.


Patients can take steps to reduce the risks of receiving care in another country.

They should heed U.S. government warnings about their intended destinations, Edelheit said.

Gan noted that the safety of the trip can also be enhanced if a medical tourism agent works with the patient. Hospitals or health care providers often have someone pick up patients at the airport and take them to a doctor’s appointment or hotel.

Patients should also do their research on quality of care before looking at prices, Edelheit said. They should find out where their potential doctor was trained and look for any accreditations or certifications.

“They really need to make sure they’re going with the best of the best,” he said.

The risk to patients may not end after the procedure. If someone has complications after returning home, it may be difficult for a doctor in the US to find out details about the care received during the trip.

It can also be difficult for patients to sue their doctor or hospital in Mexico, Bustamante said.

“Navigating the system is usually difficult,” he said.

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