Ashley Copple-Dunn weighed 403 pounds at her heaviest, but when she weighed herself recently, she was down to 221.

Her story is the same as millions of Americans. Thought weight loss alluded this mother of four, she’s no quitter, and decided to take the matter to Mexico. Not for rest and relaxation, however: she was there to have weight-loss surgery.

K.C. Smith is the CEO of Pompeii Surgical in Tijuana, a medical facility specializing in weight loss surgery that, at first glance, looks like a spa for the rich and famous. This hospital, Smith says, helps both the rich and poor.

“99% of our patient base is Americans,” Smith says. “The American healthcare system, despite popular belief, is still one of the best in the world...but it leaves certain gaps. Sometimes elective procedures, or what the world feels are elective procedures are incredibly unaffordable, and that’s when medical tourism really comes in.”

Three million Americans cross the border every year for health care. The trend is so prevalent that one small Mexican town, Los Algodones, is nicknamed “Molar City” for their 600 dental clinics.

Medical tourism is far from new, but Smith was surprised when stimulus dollars hit American’s bank accounts last April. 

“Most of our clients,” Smith says, “are very poor. The stimulus money was a huge impact for them. It was funds they never thought they would receive. And instead of spending it on essentials like rent, they said, ‘you know, I’m going to take advantage of this: spend it on my health.’”

Cities like "Molar City" are what expert David Vequist PhD, Director of Medical Tourism Research for the University of the Incarnate Word, call a “Center of Excellence,” cities that specialize in specific procedures. 

"Medical tourism exists pretty much everywhere around the world. The most common form of medical tourism is dental. That's what you see on the Mexico border. The majority of people around the world see dental as low risk." said Vequist.

While Mexico specializes in procedures such as weight-loss surgery, dentistry, lasik and plastics, other countries specialize in other things. In South Korea, it’s treatments for stomach cancer. In Germany, it is sports medicine.

"People like Payton Manning traveled to Germany, Kobe Bryant, A-Rod when he played for the Yankees, they all traveled to extend their careers."

And while they are not likely concerned with cost, those who are can expect to save a bundle.

The group, Patients Without Borders, says a patient can save between 40-65% on a procedure in Mexico, 30-45% in South Korea and in Costa Rica, where hip replacements are their specialty, between 45 and 6%. But while those figures can be enticing, there is one other small problem: perception. 

For one thing, many people eschew the idea of surgery in Mexico because they believe it would be “too dirty.” Copple-Dunn says that Pompeii Surgical was remarkably clean

“I would’ve eaten off the floors, it was so freakin’ clean,” she professed.

And that is by design.

According to Vequist, the Mexican government, looking at the future, knew that the perception of uncleanliness might hurt them. As a result, they came to an agreement with Joint Commission International to bake American health standards into the Mexican healthcare system. In other words, the Mexican government requires American standards of care for all hospitals. 

Still, Venquist says that finding the right doctor for your procedure is still “buyer beware.” He offers these tips for those looking for have medical work completed across the border:

  • Let social media be your friend. 

If a place doesn’t have a lot of good ratings, or online reviews, it’s best not to go to that facility. Go to well-established places. Crowd-sourcing and word of mouth is especially important, because typically, there’s going to be some truth behind those comments. Look at online blogs by people who have had the procedure you’re thinking of, and had it in another country. What was their experience like? 

  • Are lots of people going there? The more people who go, the better.

“Centers of Excellence,” places that focus entirely on one type of procedure or medical issue, arise around areas that are growing and developing (because that’s where the money is). Tijuana is an example of one of those places. Cities along the U.S border, such as the famed “Molar City” Los Algodones, fall into this category.

  • Is the physician who will be performing your procedure well-known?

One of the things that tends to differentiate a good medical tourism provider is being seen, heard and known by other physicians. Patients often Google the doctor. You want to be worked on by someone who has invested significant time and effort to be the best. Are they an expert? Are they well-known in the medical world? Do they have medical articles in magazines attributed to them? Are they on the lecture circuit in medical communities? If they are, the likelihood of their competence is greater. 

The Centers for Disease Control has recommendations for staying safe when considering medical tourism. CDC Medical Tourism Recommendations

Ashley Copple-Dunn followed all of the recommendations above and has no regrets whatsoever about her experience. 

“(I spent) just under 6K, total. I don’t regret a single penny. It’s life-changing for sure.” 

She now enjoys riding her new bike and walking around the block with her daughter. She could not do that a year ago.

KC Smith echoed her sentiment.

“Don’t just sit around and watch your health deteriorate and watch your life go by. There’s plenty of help for everyone, if we just all work together, we can make it happen.”


EXTRA INFORMATION:

How to pick decent places to have procedures done, and myths that surround medical care in other countries according to David Vequist, PhD. University of the Incarnate Word.

“Centers of Excellence,” places that focus entirely one one type of procedure or medical issue, arise around areas that are growing and developing (because that’s where the money is). Tijuana, Mexico is an example of one of those places. Cities along the U.S border, such as the famed “Molar City” Los Algodones, fall into this category. 

‘The doctors who work at these centers specialize in one type of surgery, and this makes them terrific at that surgery. They focus just on *those* and work to make themselves better. Mexico excels here. Also, these surgeons generally either train in the United States or attend seminars and workshops in the United States and are up-to-date with the best procedures. You want to be worked on by someone who has invested significant time and effort to be the best. Are they an expert? Are they well-known in the medical world? Do they have medical articles in magazines attributed to them? Are they on the lecture circuit in medical communities? If they are, the likelihood of their competence is greater. 

Mexico City is home to Severance Hospital, which is considered one of the best in the eastern hemisphere.  They are also Joint-Commission International participants. Many hospitals in the United States are joint-commissioned as well, meaning that they are held to a certain stand of care. Severance Hospital is held to the same standard that U.S. hospitals are. 

If a place doesn’t have a lot of good ratings, or online reviews, it’s best not to go to that facility. Crowd-sourcing and word of mouth is especially important, because typically, there’s going to be some truth behind those comments. Look at online blogs by people who have had the procedure you’re thinking of, and had it in another country. What was their experience like? 

Look for substance over style. A lot of times, Mexican hospitals “advertising” is done by the doctors themselves. They’re not necessarily flashy, but the doctors are well-trained. If a place’s best “draw” is the fact that they’re “easy” and “cheap” it is not a good idea to go there. If they’re willing to do a surgery on you without asking about your medical history or background, they’re not a good place to go. A decent facility will want to know about your medical history and possible risk factors before performing procedures.

Better doctors will, by and large, be in more populated places where the business occurs.

Also, physicians in the United States may know where the good doctors are, but watch out--they might be hesitant to give out the information because they feel they should recommend people in the United States. 

Also, make sure you have a doctor in the United States who will help you with after-surgical care. Many will not, because if something goes wrong, they risk being sued. You cannot sue a doctor from another country for malpractice.  The only way lawyer can sue doctors from other countries is if they have U.S interests. 

Also, Mexican doctors aren’t legally allowed to dispense medical advice through any telehealth platform. They can’t do it, because they’re not licensed in the U.S While President Trump relaxed the restrictions on many aspects of telemedicine, those relaxations do not pertain to doctors who are out of the country. It is a felony for Mexican doctors to give medical advice (they can, however, ask how you are feeling). 

Stay in the United States for procedures with a lot of “continuum of care” issues, such as follow-ups. Heart procedures, for example, are better done closer to home.