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Expert explains medical tourism risks after SC natives killed during travel


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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) – Medical experts and researchers are reminding people about the risks of traveling to other countries for health procedures. This comes after two Lake City natives died, and two others were taken to the hospital, one with serious injuries, after a trip to Mexico.

Officials say the group was caught in a shootout. A relative of one of the victims said they traveled across the border from Brownsville, Texas to Matamoros, Mexico, so one of the members could get cosmetic surgery. Other family and friends confirmed the others went to support their friend.

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Patients Beyond Borders CEO Josef Woodman says despite unsafe conditions in different areas of the world, violence rarely comes to traveling patients.

“I can count on the fingers of my left hand, the number of people that have come to any harm during the course of a medical travel experience due to any social or political unrest, whatever,” Woodman says. “And it’s just one of the reasons the story is so big is because it just has never happened and it just doesn’t happen.”

Woodman says it is rare because when people use credible facilities in credible areas, they are usually safe.

“And one of the main reasons is that the medical travel experience is largely an insulated experience,” Woodman says.

According to Patients Beyond Borders, the top destinations for people seeking a procedure outside their home country are Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and the United States.

The organization reports that Mexico is the second most popular destination for medical tourism in the world. They estimate 1.4 million to 3 million people traveled to the country for treatments in 2020. In its 2020 data collection, Patients Beyond Borders also estimates people can save an average of 40%-65% on various procedures by scheduling in Mexico.

“Healthcare costs continue to rise 15 to 18% increase in elective care over the last three years, which just really gets people shopping around for alternatives that they may not love but that they need to pursue saving 1520 $30,000 on a procedure; that’s real money for people,” Woodman explains.

Woodman says Matamoros is not a city that is even on their radar as a place for internationally accredited treatment or safe travel.

“We focus on the resort towns; Cancun has become a real medical center in itself,” Woodman says. “They’ve got an internationally accredited hospital that was featured in The New York Times, not long ago…So really the border towns and the resort what we call the resort towns that have built-in travel they’ve already got a lot of people traveling there.”

The top procedure for medical travelers is cosmetic surgery, followed by dentistry, including cosmetic and restorative dental work, according to Patients Beyond Borders.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there can be medical risks related to travel. That is why they advise meeting with your primary doctor four to six weeks before traveling and scheduling follow-up care.

“I haven’t been to a US dentist in 14 years. I’ve had implants of a crowns,” Woodman says. “I’ve had bridges and then all kinds of teeth cleaning and scaling. It’s all very efficient. You got to go to the right clinic. So that’s the risk. We talk about risk. It’s more of a clinical risk than a street risk. So patients that don’t do their homework that don’t research their clinics that don’t separate the really top quality clinics can get hurt. They’re the ones that are higher risk.”

The U.S. Department of State issues travel advisories for other countries based on their current affairs and the projected safety of Americans in that area.

The Mexican State of Tamaulipas, where the city of Matamoros is located, has been under a “Do Not Travel” advisory since July 2021.

A 2018 article in the American Journal of Medicine cites exponential growth from 750,000 Americans traveling to other countries for healthcare in 2007 to more than 1.4 million Americans seeking healthcare abroad in 2017.

Right now, Patients Beyond Borders estimate the worldwide medical tourism market is growing at a rate of 15-25%.

“Things were a lot more primitive. Seven years ago, there weren’t as many websites in English, the infrastructure has grown. Like it has, I’ve seen that all over Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, Hungary, as these countries become more affluent as their economic infrastructure improves and grows. So do their education systems, so do their healthcare systems,” Woodman says.

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