Mexican city lures medical tourists for tummy tucks and other care
Medical tourists are heading to the city of Mexicali for surgery, and a special border-crossing lane has opened for them.
The New York Times
MEXICALI, Mexico — Tourists often come to Mexican border towns looking for some kind of illicit adventure, trotting among the bars, strip joints and seedy motels that dot the streets. Here, though, the visitors are searching for something more basic: a root canal they can afford or surgery they have been putting off for months.
The city of Mexicali, just across the border from Southern California, has adopted medical care as its primary tourist lure, and it has been attracting a growing number of health-care visitors from California and elsewhere in the U.S. Hospitals offer operations for gastric bypass, liposuction and chronic back pain. Dentists promise that extractions, fillings and whitening can all be done for less money. And ophthalmologists advertise laser surgery and routine exams.
The influx of medical tourists has grown steadily over the last several years, attracting uninsured Mexicans who have made their lives in the United States and desperately need affordable care. But it increasingly includes a smaller but growing subset of middle-class patients from all over the country looking for deals on elective surgeries that most medical insurance will not cover.
"At first, I was like, Mexicali, where is that?" said Stephanie Rusky, a 26-year-old social worker from Perkins, Okla., who paid roughly $8,000 for some liposuction, a breast lift and a tummy tuck (a combination known as a "mommy makeover") that would have cost about twice that in the United States. "But I asked every question I could think of and eventually felt really comfortable with it."
Such sentiments are sweet music to the ears of Omar Dipp, who oversees tourism for the city.
"There's a huge market for this," Dipp said. "We just have to package it the right way. Everyone benefits: the hotels, the restaurants, the local economy. We give them a reason to come, and they will be here."
Last year, more than 150,000 patients came to Mexicali, pumping millions of dollars into the city's economy, officials said. There are more than a dozen hospitals that regularly see Americans, and many have a special administrator to coordinate medical and travel plans. With nearly 100 medical offices in a six-block radius, the city hopes to create a special medical zone by improving streets and sidewalks and adding more services for tourists.
In strip malls and office buildings here, there are far more medical offices than anything else. Hotels offer special rates for patients, and the local tourism office has begun subsidizing van rides from Las Vegas to bring in those who would rather avoid the drive themselves. And this year, the government opened a special lane to allow medical tourists to bypass most of the wait on the Mexican side of the border, which can often take as long as three hours.
Here, many Mexicans talk with pride about the easy access they have to their doctors, sending them frequent text messages with questions and expecting calls back within minutes. One oft-repeated anecdote illustrates a sign of more compassionate care: nurses will warm a patient's hand before sticking him with a needle.
But there are many other considerations potential patients must take into account. None of the hospitals in Mexicali have been certified by U.S. medical accreditation teams. While the facilities appear clean and modern, there are no published studies monitoring infection rates or other risk factors.