Mexico Is Attracting U.S. Medical Tourists

Published November 1, 2007

Traditionally, wealthy Mexicans often traveled to the United States for high-quality health care that was unavailable at home. But increasingly, uninsured Americans are traveling to Mexico for treatments that are comparable to care found in the United States, at far lower prices.

Milica Bookman, professor of economics at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia and coauthor of the new book Medical Tourism in Developing Countries (Palgrave MacMillan, $29.95), thinks part of the attraction is Mexico’s closeness to the United States.

“Central and South American countries have a huge advantage over Asian destinations as a result of their proximity,” Bookman explained. “Traveling there for health care entails shorter travel time.”

Expanding South

As a result of this trend, two Texas firms–the International Hospital Corp. and CHRISTUS Health System–are operating topnotch hospitals and clinics in Mexico and Latin America. These facilities strive to have the quality and amenities that American patients expect, with prices that are anything but typical of U.S. hospitals. Surgical procedures in these facilities are about 40 percent less expensive than when performed in the United States.

International Hospital Corp. operates four hospitals in Mexico–three close to the U.S. border and one near Mexico City–as well as others in Costa Rica and Brazil. The hospitals were not designed with foreign patients in mind.

“Our first and foremost goal is to serve the needs of the local community,” said Cliff Orme, chief operating officer of CIMA, the division of International Hospital Corp. that operates hospitals in Mexico.

“It just so happens that other people have discovered the high-quality services that we have,” Orme continued. He doesn’t mind that his hospitals are becoming a medical tourism destination. “We are preparing to meet the need,” he said.

Increasing Competition

CHRISTUS Health System, a Catholic charity based in Irving, Texas, is also seeing an increase in medical travel among U.S. consumers because of the rising cost of health care.

According to the Houston Chronicle, more than 1 million people worldwide spent $60 billion on medical care for which they crossed international borders last year, and 150,000 of those people were Americans. According to a study conducted by the University of Texas Medical Center in El Paso, more than 20 million U.S./Mexico border crossings annually are made for medical care.

“We believe that our CHRISTUS Muguerza facilities in and around Monterrey, Mexico are attractive medical travel destinations because of their high quality, convenience, and lower cost,” CEO Dr. Thomas Royer said.

CHRISTUS facilities near the U.S. border have treated many American Medicare-eligible patients willing to pay out-of-pocket for superior care, Royer notes. The group currently operates 40 hospitals and long-term care facilities. Most are in the United States, but a handful are in Mexico.

Building Up

In 2001, CHRISTUS teamed up with Muguerza, a prominent health care system in Northern Mexico, to form CHRISTUS Muguerza. The firm plans to invest heavily in Mexico over the next decade and has already identified 40 communities along the U.S./Mexico border in which to build facilities.

It’s easy to see why. According to a June 2000 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Mexican physicians already have a thriving business treating American and Canadian retirees in search of low-cost drugs. Indeed, some Arizona retirement communities have regular bus tours taking residents across the Mexican border for prescription drugs and dental care.

According to USA Today, some 40,000 to 80,000 American seniors already live in Mexico. Retirees especially need access to quality health care without having to travel back to the United States.

Insuring Across Border

Soon, insurers may get in on the act. A few health plans in Southern California already offer lower premiums and copayments to patients who use network providers across the border in Tijuana.

For the past seven years, BlueShield of California has offered an HMO plan, Access Baja, in which enrollees visit physicians across the border in Mexico. Because medical care costs less in Mexico, the premiums for Access Baja are less than two-thirds the cost of the alternative BlueShield of California plans.

“When insurance companies begin participating in the medical tourism industry, countries such as Mexico will benefit immensely,” Bookman said.

And so will cash-paying American patients.

Devon M. Herrick, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a health economist and senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

For more information …

“Globalization and Health at the United States-Mexico Border,” by Núria Homedes, M.D., Dr.P.H., and Antonio Ugalde, Ph.D., American Journal of Public Health, December 2003:

“Cheap Prescription Drugs Creating New Brand of U.S. Tourist in Canada, Mexico,” written by Milan Korcok and published on June 27, 2000 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #22023.

“Seniors Head South to Mexican Nursing Homes”: