Plastic and cosmetic surgery, as well as cosmetic dermatology, are among the most popular specializations driving individuals to travel abroad for, rather than consulting a local doctor at home. Anything from a reasonably simple and quick treatment – like laser teeth whitening – to more complex procedures involving multiple surgeries – like a mommy makeover – are fair game and changing the traditional view of what medical tourism is. A vast country, Mexico’s medical tourism scene is as varied as it’s scenery, and it caters adeptly to all-comers, no matter what their expectations are.
Medical tourism is a term you’re sure to have heard about, even if you are not exactly certain what’s involved in it. In a nutshell, it is when people who live in one country travel to another for medical, surgical or dental care.
The traditional view of medical tourism is that it is primarily for people who cannot afford health care in their home country, or they want access to care that is better than that provided in their home country, or not provided at all.
Medical Necessity or Desire?
While all this is still true, the affordability factor is something that is bringing many different people to the medical tourism sector, and much of this is fuelled by their desire to look as good as they can, for as long as they can. It is not really anything to do with healthcare, as such, but more about body image and esthetics. The difference between these and traditional medical tourists, is that traditional medical tourists opt to go abroad as a medical necessity, whereas cosmetic treatments are more about psychological rather than physical needs.
This is not to denigrate anybody who wants to change their appearance (usually for the better). We live in an age when taking care of our appearance is expected, and whether we like it or not, we are constantly bombarded with The Body Beautiful in the media. Airbrushed images, photo-shopped Celebs and the new cosmeceuticals that blur the lines between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals ensure we’re all aspiring to look younger for longer. Mexico’s cosmetic and plastic surgery clinics are fulfilling a need, but at prices that are a fraction of the cost medical tourists pay at home.
Snake Venom, Bee Sting and Snail slime – The Modern Way to Look Good
The modern way of looking good extends far beyond slapping on a bit of makeup and coloring our hair. Now we can remove unwanted hair from our bodies with laser hair removal; replace hair when it’s gone with hair transplants; reduce or increase the size of our breasts; get rid of fat from where we don’t want it with liposuction – and place it somewhere we do, like in our butts!
And, of course, there are the increasingly bizarre ingredients found in anti-aging treatments for the face, including snake venom, bee sting and snail slime, which makes vampire facelifts and Botox seem relatively innocuous.
While we can joke about it, the point is that these procedures don’t come cheap. Cosmetic surgery is more expensive than the non-surgical cosmetic dermatology treatments, but both are extremely popular among medical tourists. So, what, is driving this?
Factors driving medical tourism
It is doubtful that one single factor is behind the growth of medical tourism, but rather several that have created a tipping point. Take these reasons together and it’s not hard to see why medical tourism has become so appealing.
Frequent, low-cost flights to all corners of the Globe means the economics of traveling abroad is a viable option. In turn, this also means travelers are savvy and used to going abroad. So, turning up in a different country for a medical or surgical procedure is hardly more daunting than attending the local hospital.
The ability for individuals to research far-flung places online, read testimonials or reviews, check-out photos, compare prices and book appointments can’t be under-estimated. Although there are medical travel companies around to help with finding suitable medical facilities abroad, as well as booking accommodation, flights or packages, for a great many medical tourists, do-it-yourself is very much the order of the day.
Medical Tourism Marketing
Thailand kick-started the current trend in medical tourism, back in the 1990s. The Thai Government is well-aware of the potential of foreign patients as a source of revenue, and through a number of initiatives, including international roadshows to attract patients and tax breaks for facilities targeting medical tourists, facilitates the growth of the sector throughout the country
It’s fair to say that most countries with a successful medical tourism sector have achieved this with the support of their governments. Initiatives like the Fast Pass Medical Lanes in Mexico’s border cities enable patients to miss out the long waits to cross the border and is a contributing factor to the boom in numbers of cross-border patients.
The overriding factor in the success of medical tourism is the cost – and with prices being around 60% less, the savings are more than enough to persuade most people looking seriously at medical tourism to make the trip.
Who are the medical tourists?
Far from being dominated by wealthy individuals who spend vast amounts traveling overseas for a specific procedure, the medical tourism sector is now a broad church, attracting middle and lower income individuals as much as those who are well-off. Typically, medical tourists can be categorized as follows:
1: Medical tourists who travel specifically for a particular procedure
For want of a better word, these are the ‘proper’ medical tourists – who, by definition, travel abroad with the primary aim of receiving medical care.
Even in this group, the motivations behind individuals becoming medical tourists is as varied as the treatment they seek. Reasons include availability of procedure and/or technology; lack of insurance cover and lower costs.
Often, the vacation part of the trip is not the overriding consideration for these patients but rather the expertise. So, for patients looking at, for instance, bariatric weight loss surgery, they are more likely to choose a facility based on expertise rather than location.
While for some in this group, cost is not so important as to the availability of a treatment, for most, cost is a primary factor – particularly on expensive treatments.
For example, bariatric surgery in Mexico costs a quarter of the price of the $20,000 in the United States, saving patients some $15,000. Even with accommodation and flight costs, that is still a huge amount.
2: Medical tourists who already have a planned vacation/business trip
These patients make up the bulk of medical tourists. This group also includes those who organize a vacation with a view to combining medical care. As such, these patients will be looking to make the most of their time abroad by traveling to holiday destinations and taking part in holiday activities as their medical procedure allows, such as sightseeing and shopping.
These patients consider the vacation part of their trip to be as important as the medical procedure, and are more likely to choose typical holiday destinations, such as Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas.
If they are having surgery, they may well choose to go a week before their scheduled procedure to enjoy the ‘holiday’ part of the trip, and spend the following week recuperating, before traveling home and back to their normal routine.
Procedures like breast implants lend themselves very well to this scenario, and once again, the savings gained by traveling to Mexico make it more than worthwhile. While the surgery in the United States costs an average of $12,000, breast implants in Mexico are only around $5,000 – saving more than enough to pay for a decent holiday.
3: Those who live near enough to a border where it isn’t unreasonable to get the procedure in the country next door, particularly if it saves money.
This group of patients includes those that are near enough to drive to their chosen location, but also cheap, frequent flights means it’s also an option for patients from slightly further afield.
Mexico’s proliferation of healthcare options along the length of the border make it a particularly appealing destination for these travelers. Americans have long taken advantage of Mexico’s lower costs in terms of shopping, and medical care is no exception. Border towns, such as Los Algodones, are doing a roaring trade in dental care, whereas Tijuana is popular for cosmetic surgery, bariatric surgery and hip replacements.
4: There are also the ‘frequent’ visitor group of medical tourists. Again, this may include business travelers, who often travel to a specific location and may decide to top up their Botox or dermal fillers for less while they are aware. Treatments like this have virtually no downtime and can be carried out with very little in the way of side-effects – perfect for travelers on the move.
This group also encompasses American and Canadian snowbirds – those who travel south for the winter to the warmer climates in the states along the US-Mexico border. Many of these are retirees, with limited finances, and make the most of cut-price pharmaceuticals, optical and dental services in the Mexican border towns, with Los Algodones being a key destination for dental care.
Pitfalls of Medical Tourism
There’s no doubt that medical tourism fulfils a need, but there are caveats to be aware of for anyone thinking of jetting off for a surgical holiday in the sun.
1: Location, location, location
Give this some serious consideration. If you like peace and quiet, then popular tourist destinations like Cancun are unlikely to float-your-boat. Other aspects, like language, tourist facilities and accessibility must also be factored in.
2: Be realistic
This is with regards to the outcome of your procedure, as well as to what you can do on your holiday post-treatment. The glossy photos may look great with pristine white beaches and azure waters, but if you have had surgery, keeping your wound dry means swimming is out of bounds, and do you really want to get sand in there?
3: Always do your research
This is something that can’t be stressed enough. Do facilities measure up? Are they affiliated with any international organizations, like the Joint Commission International (JCI)? Is your surgeon a member of a professional organization, like the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (ISAPS)?
You can find plenty of information online, but you may have to do a little digging to authenticate the veracity of what you find. An alternative is to find a reliable medical tourism company, where the information has already been verified. These companies can also help with other aspects of your trip, from hotel bookings to airport transfers – and can also offer good deals on all-inclusive package deals.
Medical tourism is a realistic proposition for many people now. As spa treatments are as much a part of relaxing on holiday and treating ourselves, then medical tourism is very much part of this ethos. Mexico has come into its own as a global medical tourism hub, rivalling Asia as a reliable, go-to destination with the expertise and prices to match. It’s little wonder that medical tourists looking for cosmetic treatments are now making the country their number one choice.