Why Medical Tourism Is Drawing Patients, Even in a Pandemic - The New York Times
In recent years, while still on her ex- husband’s health insurance policy, she had received hormonal treatments to ease the pain so she could go about her daily life. But since her divorce last year and the coronavirus restrictions placed on the beauty industry in March, those treatment costs have become prohibitive, especially with no insurance.“There is no real cure for endometriosis, but if I want to free myself from this pain then I need to get a hysterectomy,” Ms. Jackson said, her voice shaking as she described the procedure to remove her uterus. “As if the surgery isn’t bad enough, I need to find 20,000 bucks to pay for it, which is just crazy so I’m going to have to find a way to go to Mexico.”
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed millions of Americans into poverty and stripped more than 5.4 million American workers of their health insurance, according to a study by the nonpartisan consumer advocacy group, Families USA. Many people like Ms. Jackson have experienced a significant deterioration in their health because they have delayed medical procedures. The fear of large medical bills has outweighed fear of contagion for some, giving rise to an increased number of patients seeking medical treatment in a foreign country.
“We are seeing a pent-up demand for medical tourism during the pandemic, particularly in the U.S. where a fast-growing number of Americans are traveling across the land border with Mexico for health purposes,” said David G. Vequist IV, the founder of the Center for Medical Tourism Research, a group based in San Antonio, Texas, and a professor at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. Even before the pandemic, millions of Americans traveled to other countries for savings of between 40 to 80 percent on medical treatments, according to the global medical tourism guide Patients Beyond Borders. Mexico and Costa Rica have become the most popular destinations for dental care, cosmetic surgery and prescription medicines while Thailand, India and South Korea draw in patients for more complex procedures including orthopedics, cardiovascular, cancer and fertility treatment.
In 2019, 1.1 percent of Americans traveling internationally did so for health treatments, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office, although that figure only accounts for those who traveled by air and does not include the thousands of travelers who crossed the United States-Mexico border. Definitive statistics on medical tourism are hard to come by because countries have different recording methods and definitions of the sector.
Medical tourism has been decimated by coronavirus restrictions, but, even so, the twin crises of the economy and the enormous strain that Covid-19 has placed on the already faulty American health care system are pushing many patients to travel. Demand for nonessential surgeries has also been building up after more than 177,000 scheduled surgeries were postponed in the United States between March and June in 2020, according to the Center for Medical Tourism Research. “Our market has always been what I call the ‘working poor’ and they just keep getting poorer,” said Josef Woodman, the chief executive of Patients Beyond Borders. “The pandemic has gutted low-income and middle-class people around the world and for many of them the reality is that they have to travel to access affordable health care.” In April, following the initial global lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, medical travel bookings were down by more than 89 percent in the most popular destinations, including Mexico, Thailand, Turkey and South Korea, according to Medical Departures, a Bangkok-based medical travel agency. Since August, the numbers have slowly been rebounding, but bookings in Mexico, which has seen an uptick in American travelers in recent months, are still down by 32 percent compared to the same period of August to December in 2019.