In the United States and many other developed countries, medical and dental care is largely controlled by governments, insurance corporations, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and professional associations — all of which impose onerous restrictions, limit the supply of care, and drive costs ever higher. In response, a growing number of people are seeking healthcare in foreign countries. This "medical tourism" offers several enticing advantages: comparable care at a fraction of the cost, access to promising treatments and medications not approved by the regulatory agencies in the patient's country of origin, and the ability to complete one or more desired procedures in far less time than is typical in the more bureaucratic countries.
Such patients will usually seek care in countries closer to their home country, if only to reduce the cost of airfare. For instance, Americans and Canadians will typically have their foreign procedures done in Mexico or in other Latin American countries, such as Ecuador. The well-to-do patients in Australia and Middle Eastern countries will generally go to Thailand or Malaysia, although less-developed countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia are also seeing an influx of foreigners desiring to reap the benefits of greater choice and lower cost.
The tremendous value of medical tourism was recently demonstrated to me when I chose to have a number of medical and dental procedures completed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Specifically, I wanted to have a shoulder fixed, numerous bumps and spots removed from my skin, a comprehensive blood test, and my teeth professionally cleaned.
Despite living in Mexico for a couple years and making countless short visits prior to this trip, I had had only one medical test performed, but innumerable dental procedures. In all those cases, the quality of care was equal to that in the United States, at much lower prices. For example, when living in the San Diego area, I sought professional help for a temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) and concomitant nighttime clenching. I ended up spending — actually, wasting — many thousands of dollars paid to a Harvard-trained orthodontist and later to a dentist, neither of whom improved my situation using strange dental splints and, in the case of the former, greatly increased my pain. Losing all hope for finding a solution in the United States, I sought help from my dentist in Tijuana, who correctly diagnosed the problem and then solved it overnight (by installing six crowns), at considerably less cost. I can't recall what I paid, but it was a lot less than the money lost to the so-called experts in the US.
In Puerto Vallarta, I fortunately was not in need of such extensive dental work, but rather just a cleaning. Using Google Maps, I quickly located two dental offices within walking distance of my Airbnb rental and visited the one with the highest reviews, to make an appointment. In the United States, when calling a dental office to secure an appointment, it is common to be told that the earliest possible appointment is many weeks, if not a few months, in the future. In my case, I was given an appointment just a few days in the future. The office did not contain any of the pricey but pointless accoutrements often seen in the United States — such as a huge fish tank or mind-numbing easy listening music — but it did contain all of the needed dental equipment and a pleasant dentist to make use of it. The end result was that my teeth were made beautifully white, for which I was charged only 450 pesos, which was equivalent to only $22.18! Compare that to the average cost in the Dallas, Texas area, which is $90 or more, according to several online sources. That figure seems correct, given that a local dentist in Texas charges $179 for two cleanings.
One advantage to dental work in Mexico is that one encounters no difficulty or resistance from the dentist when requesting a cleaning without x-rays — unlike in the United States, where every dentist I have encountered demands that x-rays be taken prior to any cleaning, regardless of how recently one had x-rays taken at a different office or how much one wants to minimize exposure to x-rays.
The price differential is much greater when comparing more involved procedures. For instance, when I had a crown installed during a trip to San Miguel de Allende, the dentist offered a range of crowns, differing in quality and price, and I chose one near the middle of the range. The crown itself as well as all of the professional services cost 2600 pesos, which at that time was equivalent to only $151. A few years later I had another crown installed, in Dallas, at a cost of $1190, which is nearly eight times as much as the one south of the border.
Affordable dental costs is not limited to professional care, but also seen in supplementary products. For instance, several weeks earlier, I had needed to buy a new toothbrush. A local pharmacy (Farmacia Guadalajara) offered a wide selection — most of which had a variety of the annoying extra "features" that the marketing departments keep adding to their products. So I chose a basic one, made by Colgate. Happily, it turned out to be the best I've ever found, with bristles that are very soft and long (making it easier to clean the bottom back portions of one's lower teeth), and with none of those unwanted extras. So before leaving Puerto Vallarta, I decided to stock up on these excellent toothbrushes and purchased all three remaining ones, costing 22.2 Mexican pesos each. I got lucky in that, unbeknownst to me, this particular pharmacy was offering a discount on them of 30%. Thus the items cost me only 46.50 pesos (66.6 pesos with a discount of 20.1), which was equivalent to USD $2.26. I don't know what toothbrushes cost in the US, but it is likely more than $1.13.
The one medical test I had done in Mexico prior to this trip, in Aguascalientes, was a bone density scan (densitometry), which cost only 180 pesos — an incredible $9.43! According to online sources, the average cost for that procedure in Dallas ranges from $85 to $211. The average of that range, $148, is more than 15 times as much as what I paid in Mexico.
In Puerto Vallarta, I had that procedure repeated, at a much larger facility, as opposed to the small clinic previously. It cost 1298 pesos, equivalent to $63.08. Why the dramatic difference between this time and the one in Aguascalientes? It wasn't the size of the facility, but rather the fact that Puerto Vallarta is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country and is home to about 35,000 American and Canadian expats and retirees (according to local government estimates in 2014), which is not the case for Aguascalientes. In general, the more touristy the city, the more pricey the medical and dental care.
Another procedure I was anxious to have performed in Puerto Vallarta, was a comprehensive blood test, to measure the values of 83 components, truly ranging from A to Z (alanine aminotransferase to zinc). In fact, it was more extensive than any blood test I had ever had before, in any country. It cost 4500 pesos, which was equal to $217.86. In Dallas, a similar blood test for men, encompassing 90 components, costs $799, which is roughly four times as much. In preparation for my pre-surgery assessment in Puerto Vallarta by an internal medicine specialist, I had to get a blood coagulation test, which cost me only 150 pesos, equivalent to $7.32. A medically knowledgeable friend joked that if I had it done in the United States, the $7.32 would be sufficient only to pay for the nurse's gloves!
At two different dermatology offices, I had a total of six spots, of various types and sizes, removed from the skin of my face and scalp. My total cost was 5500 pesos, which was equal to $262.55. The cash cost of such work in the United States would, according to my research, vary depending upon the region of the country and the exact procedures (e.g., laser versus surgery), but the average cost per excision site appears to be about $300. So in my case, if I had chosen to have the work done north of the border, it would probably have cost about $1800, which is more than six times as much as my outlays in Mexico.
Lastly, the most significant medical procedure I had done was the shoulder arthroscopy. Including the consultation with the orthopedic surgeon, the two x-rays of the shoulder, the operation itself (including all the charges from the hospital, the surgeon, and the anesthesiologist), and the removal of stitches later, it cost me 73,000 pesos, which was equivalent to $3555. Prior to this trip, when I was researching the option of having the surgery done in Dallas, online sources indicated that the average cost north of the border was $21,000, which is almost six times as much. The quality of the process, from start to finish, was equal to the first time I had this same operation, a couple decades ago, in Los Angeles. The Mexican orthopedic surgeon drilled only two holes in my shoulder, instead of the three needed by the American. More importantly, the Mexican anesthesiologist (who specializes in pediatric anesthesiology) took full account of my light weight and consequently used the minimal amount of anesthesia, while the American anesthesiologist had used an excessive amount — enough to cause a terribly painful problem after the operation to the extent that they insisted on keeping me in the hospital overnight for monitoring.
Although much of what is described in this article is anecdotal, it should be enough to convince anyone in the United States — or any developed country with absurdly expensive medical and dental costs — to at least consider, with an open mind, having any such work done instead in Mexico or other well-known medical tourist destination. You might be considering it as a way to dramatically reduce the financial burden (especially if you do not have healthcare insurance), or as a way of gaining access to therapies and medications not allowed in your home country. The travel itself does involve extra time and expense, but even taking that into account, you'll probably still spend a lot less money — and with beautiful locations like Puerto Vallarta, you can easily turn it into a vacation.