Medical tourism continues to pump life into border region

Americans for years have looked south of the border to take advantage of less expensive health care and various medical procedures.

Dental work in Mexico is 60 percent cheaper compared to the United States, and certain surgeries, such as bariatric surgery, can be reduced by 70 percent when it comes time to pay up. This cost competitiveness powers many Mexican border town economies.

According to a survey by the Medical Tourism Association, about 65 percent of those traveling to Mexico for medical procedures were individuals not covered by insurance.

Millions of Americans head south every year, including about 6,000 Americans passing through the Yuma Port of Entry every single day to get procedures in the nearby town of Los Algodones.

The border town is just a stone’s throw away from both California and Arizona. The town has more dentists per capita than most known cities. Operations there hire bilingual nurses, doctors and dentists to offer better communication. With 300 dental offices and more than 900 dentists in the town, Los Algodones is the hub of medical tourism for Arizonans, also known as “dental refugees.” These tourists are not only the lifeblood of Los Algodones, but also contributors to the economy of its cross-border neighbor San Luis.

“San Luis depends on the Mexican shopper coming in, and we want to make sure that we can get the winter visitors to come in as well, and get gas and stop in and get servicing, for instance,” Jenny Torres, community development director for the City of San Luis, said. “We’re trying to promote tourism overall.”

The National Association of Dental Plans estimates that approximately 74 million people in the United States alone have no dental insurance.

Dental work in Los Algodones can cut dental bills by up to 80 percent in some cases, making it an attractive option for residents of Yuma or others in Arizona who only have to make a relatively short drive.

Even though the medical tourism industry in Algodones has seen a steady flow of American patients over the years, news about crime has stifled the industry a bit. But Torres notes that there are more hands-on efforts to change that narrative, boosting the reputation of the border as a safe and convenient place to obtain medical services.

“We’re trying to promote tourism in the region and let people know it’s okay to travel here and around this area in general,” Torres said. “We want to change the perception to be a welcoming area.”

Torres notes there are services to take tourists to the border and have them learn about medical tourism in the region and then bring them back to Arizona, boosting education about the level of safety and services offered to them.

“San Luis is taking care of tourists and also trying to create an association between hospitals, doctors, pharmacies to work together to benefit the area in terms of medical tourism,” Torres said.

Nick Esquer

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