Risks of medical tourism highlighted by kidnapping in Mexico

By Natalie Kruvant | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published March 9, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Four Americans were kidnapped over the weekend in Mexico. They were traveling for medical tourism.

  • Mexico is one of the most popular destinations for medical tourism.

  • Physicians should be aware that patients may be considering medical tourism and how to advise them safely.

This past weekend, four Americans were kidnapped in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, in a case of mistaken identity. A Mexican drug cartel may have mistaken the white minivan for Haitian drug smugglers, according to news sources. Two of the Americans were killed, and two survived the ordeal.[]

According to a release by the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Mexico, the minivan had North Carolina plates, and the four Americans were fired upon and then removed from the scene by men with guns. 

The Americans were allegedly traveling to Mexico for medical services. It is unclear if the four knew of the travel advisory for the state of Tamaulipas in Mexico. The U.S. Department of State suggests avoiding travel to the area because of “crime” and “kidnapping.”[] 

It’s been reported that one of the Americans was planning on getting a “tummy tuck,” and the other individuals were accompanying her.

The incident has raised questions about medical tourism and the safety issues associated with the practice. Mexico is one of the most popular destinations for medical tourism. The country receives mostly Americans and Canadians (upwards of one million visitors yearly) seeking medical services.[]

“Unfortunately, the cost of medical care, even with insurance, is astronomical and oftentimes unattainable for some individuals, not to mention those who are uninsured. As a result, medical tourism has become popular over the years because medical procedures in other countries are a fraction of the price of what it would be in the United States,” Kristen Fuller, M.D., tells MDLinx. 

Some US-based companies like North American Specialty Hospital (NASH) help Americans get procedures in Mexico. Specifically, NASH handles specialty pharmacy fulfillment and joint replacement surgeries.  

As part of the process, NASH pre-approves patients and helps them receive the operation in Mexico. NASH also flies down US surgeons to perform the procedure in a Joint Commission International Accredited hospital. 

“Literally, from the time they come to Cancun to the time they leave, they're with our team. And then we follow up with this continuity of care with their US-based physician, to make sure that they know the outcome,” says Michael R. Agostino, Chief Executive Officer of NASH. 

For Americans that don’t use a service like NASH, medical tourism can be a confusing and overwhelming experience. Sometimes patients don’t thoroughly think through the process and return to the US with less-than-optimal results. 

“I personally have treated many patients with poor or life-threatening outcomes from having surgery abroad. All surgery is serious and in the wrong hands has the potential to be disastrous,” says Charles Pierce DO, MPH, FACS.

What can physicians do to protect their patients?

Agostino suggests some practical steps to help protect patients who ask about medical tourism options. Some of his suggestions include the following:

  • Reminding patients to travel by air for safety and ease. 

  • Imploring patients to research before traveling and avoid cities the US State Department marks as “do not travel” or “reconsider travel.”

  • Preparing pre- and post-care plans with the patient once they return to the US. 

  • Suggesting that the patient receive care in a US-accredited hospital or facility. 

Fuller suggests reminding patients of the procedure and all the care touchpoints. 

“There are a lot of logistical factors that need to be taken into account, such as travel plans, time off work, recovery time, potential complications, and having a support system while you are in a different country,” says Fuller. 

Medical tourism is here to stay, and some of your patients may seriously consider it.

“It may be beneficial for doctors in the US to have contacts in the medical tourism world since patients are going to use this avenue regardless, so may as well refer to trusted medical teams worldwide, in the medical tourism industry,” says Fuller. 

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter