We’ve all heard stories about friends, social media influencers or even celebs who traveled outside the U.S. for a facelift, tummy tuck, weight loss, dental or other surgery. The allure is obvious — affordability, privacy, not to mention a nice vacay in the bargain.
Like most people I know, I was horrified to hear about the group of friends who were kidnapped while traveling from South Carolina to Matamoros, Mexico, for a medical procedure in March. Latavia McGee, who was reportedly scheduled to have cosmetic surgery, and Eric Williams survived, while two other members of their party — Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown — were murdered by members of a drug cartel.
More recently, at least five Americans have died from — and over a dozen more are suspected to have contracted — a potentially deadly fungal infection. The affected patients underwent epidural anesthesia at cosmetic surgery clinics in the same Mexican city, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. More than 200 U.S. residents who had the procedures between Jan. 1 and May 13 may be at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A 2020 study published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, found that Black patients seeking cosmetic surgery are more likely to consider international travel for care than other groups.
While these stories generated massive news coverage and understandable alarm, the bigger picture is that many Black women travel to places like Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean every day for such procedures as cosmetic surgery, dental work, fertility treatments and cancer care. Some of us do so because it’s less expensive, while others are seeking doctors who look like us or who offer a procedure that isn’t offered in the United States.
A 2020 study published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, found that Black patients seeking cosmetic surgery are more likely to consider international travel for care than other groups. We’re also more willing to travel over 100 miles to be treated by a Black medical provider.
Why so many of us seek medical care overseas — and the 16+ countries we’re visiting
According to the CDC, “medical tourism is a worldwide, multibillion-dollar market that continues to grow with the rising globalization of health care. Surveillance data indicates that millions of U.S. residents travel internationally for medical care each year. Medical tourism destinations for U.S. residents include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Singapore and Thailand.”
One reason we’re more open to medical tourism could be our dissatisfaction with the health care system in the U.S. “I feel safer and more comfortable getting medical care outside of the U.S.,” says Karen Akpan, founder of the organization Black Kids Do Travel and family travel blogger at The MomTrotter. Akpan, her husband Sylvester and their 10-year-old son Aiden have had dental work done, as well as primary care appointments in such countries as Colombia, Turkey and Mexico. In the United States, the quality of care is tied to the type of insurance coverage you have, she says. “But in other countries, because that insurance factor is not there, it doesn’t play a role in your medical care.”
Medical tourism destinations for U.S. residents include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Singapore and Thailand.
The lower costs of health care in other countries could also be a reason Black patients are willing to travel farther for care. For example, a tummy tuck costs in the U.S. on average $6,622, according to plastic surgery trade group The Aesthetic Society — and that’s not including the costs of anesthesia, medical tests, prescriptions and other surgery-related costs. One provider in Tijuana, Mexico, VIDA Wellness and Beauty, lists costs for the procedure at more than $2,000 less, at $4,500.
And it’s not just cosmetic surgery, which is typically not covered by insurance, that many Black people cannot afford. Black Americans are more likely to be uninsured than white Americans, and some southern states — where many of us live — have among the highest uninsured rates in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Cost plays a huge role in the affordability of care and treatment, and the quality of the care and treatment a person gets is based on what they can afford,” says Kim Johnson, M.D., a health equity advocate and executive director of the Center for Racial Health Equity.
Even if you do have health insurance, “all health insurance plans are not created equally, and all clinicians don’t take all plans,” Dr. Johnson adds.
For these reasons and more, many of us set our sights on health care providers overseas to give us the care that we might not otherwise get.
Here are safety measures to consider
Be aware of the risks. Before you book a procedure, understand what types of challenges you may face in other countries. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, “Health care facilities in another country may not have adequate infection control practices, and medical tourists could be at risk for getting a drug-resistant infection.” Also, some countries may have lower medical licensing requirements than the United States or use counterfeit medications or less technologically advanced medical devices.
Research the provider and the procedure. Look up the qualifications and credentials of the physician and medical facility where you will be having the procedure done. Organizations such as the Joint Commission International, DNV and the International Society for Quality in Health Care External Evaluation Association all offer accreditation services and identify organizations that uphold certain standards.
Also, learn as much as you can about the techniques, the tools and the risks of whatever procedure or treatment you’re planning to get. Then take that information and interview the provider you’re thinking about going to, says Natasha Ramontal, a doctoral-trained registered nurse and digital health strategist who started a YouTube channel on medical tourism. While working in an emergency room in the Miami area, Dr. Ramontal noticed that many Black and Brown women were coming in after having botched medical procedures, some of them done overseas. “Ask about risks, infection, expected downtime, complications and what to expect during recovery,” she says.
Talk to your physician. If you have a physician at home, let them know well in advance that you’re planning to get treatment outside of the country — even if you think they’re going to try to talk you out of it, says Dr. Ramontal. Let them know you’ve made your decision, but you want to know what concerns they have that you should be aware of. They may mention a medication you’re on or a condition you have that the overseas provider should be made aware of. Also, if you are at risk of developing blood clots, whether it’s safe to fly before or after a surgical procedure should be carefully considered.
Vet the location through travel groups and other medical tourists online. While the medical care is important, do you want to cross a war zone to get there? There are Facebook groups that cater to travelers, expats and those who have had experiences getting medical care overseas. “Those people are more than willing to tell you everything about the neighborhoods, where to eat and where not to go,” Dr. Ramontal says. A medical tourism facilitator, a professional who helps medical tourists find providers, could also help. The International Medical Travel Journal has a list of facilitators and agencies.
Have a plan for after the procedure. You may not be able to travel for a few weeks after a surgery or major procedure is done. Know where you’re going to stay and have someone you trust who will be with you to provide a hand if you need it while you recover, Dr. Ramontal advises. An international travel insurance policy specifically tailored for medical tourism can save you from unforeseen expenses if something goes wrong.
Go to a place that’s known for the procedure you want done. Akpan knew that Colombia had a reputation for having good dentistry services. “Rick Ross got dental care in Colombia, that’s how crazy it is,” she says, referring to the rapper who got a new set of veneers from a Colombian dentist. Knowing that a certain provider has been sought out by a lot of people can give you some reassurance that they are performing satisfactory work.
Only you can decide if medical tourism is the right option for you, but do the research to make sure you’re not putting your life in jeopardy.
“Black women are the most underserved population worldwide,” says Dr. Ramontal. If you have enough information to make a better-informed decision, “you will have a better outcome and a better patient experience.”