Medical tourism is a booming industry in Mexico, with weightloss surgery one of its most popular procedures. And surprisingly, the consumer…Americans, coming through on the Texas borders.
The main reason, because most insurance plans don’t cover bariatric surgery. And those that do, not only label it as a ‘premium’ option but they have several requirements a policy holder must meet before any weightloss surgery will be preformed.
In 2012, the National Center for Policy Analysis said medical tourism has become so profitable it’s a 100 billion market. And since both obesity and diabetes are on the rise in the United States, more and more Americans are asking for bariatric surgeries.
“Gastric bypass and the gastric sleeve are very popular procedures to get done in Mexico,” said Susan George, who works as a coordinator and liaison for patients interested in Mexico Medical Tourism and currently works with Dr. Guilermo Alavarez in Piedras Negras. “In the U.S. weightloss surgery has become too costly and people don’t want to wait to fight the insurances.”
The 2014 CDC report estimates that up to 750,000 U.S. residents travel abroad for medical care each year. And you don’t have to look very far, all over the internet several doctors in Mexico offer all-inclusive packages.
“Dr. Alvarez, offers the entire surgery (vertical sleeve), hotel stay, transportation, after-care meal plans, and food for the visit for a little less than $9,000,” George said. “Mexico is sometimes a third or a quarter for the cost… if it were not safe we would not allow anyone to come here.”
Despite common belief, not all hospitals are just in it for the business profit, George said. She herself has undergone weightloss surgery in Mexico and she said it “gives people their life back.”
The biggest concern of people looking into Mexico’s medical tourism is the stigma of the border, George said.
"I think people watch really just too much TV. They expect gun battles in the street, and things like that but it's just not that way," she said. "It is all just a matter of research. The bad can be found anywhere."
But going to a unfamiliar country can have a downside if you're not careful. Many U.S doctors have seen the negative effects of surgeries gone wrong, and warn their patients that detailed research beforehand is important.
"There are some [surgeons] who do very good work, but there are some who don't and there are no regulations like the FDA in the United States," Dr. Richard Peterson of the UT Health Science Center said. "You may think you're getting one thing, but you're actually getting something different."
Despite the precautions, U.S. residents continue to take the risks, traveling to places they may have never been before to receive the weight loss. 1200 WOAI’s Stephanie Narvaez, talked to one patient, Randy, from Michigan to Texas to travel to Piedras Negras for the gastric sleeve surgery. He did not want to provide a last name because of the stigma he said he still feels.
He said he was well versed in the procedure prior to traveling and knew the exact type of questions to ask once he met the doctor for the first time, the day of the surgery.
"I was a little nervous before flying to Texas, but once I met the staff at the airport and hotels, I was very comfortable,” Randy said. “It's a very well-oiled machine… the language barrier wasn’t a factor and the border wasn’t scary at all.”
One main concern of U.S. doctors is the aftercare. Its not unusual for primary care doctors to stop seeing patients once they return from Mexico with a new stomach, Dr. Peterson said
"If you're going across the border to have your surgery, then you're not going to have the aftercare. They may tell you that you will, but how easy is it going to be to drive across?" he said. “If there are complications or something goes wrong once you’re back in the U.S. doctor’s here will know very little about the overall surgery that just took place.”