Banking on worries over rising health costs in the U.S., government and hospital officials in Mexico City are courting Chicagoans searching for affordable medical care.
On Wednesday, about a dozen Chicago health professionals and several others embarked on a health care tour of Mexico City, part of a campaign to raise that city's profile as a center for medical tourism. The campaign is aimed at residents in Chicago and other cities with large Mexican immigrant populations who need cancer treatment, heart surgeries, dental procedures and other health care.
"We have many hospitals of great prestige," said Dr. Ricardo Garcia Cavazos, undersecretary of health for Mexico City, whose agency has sent delegations to meet with health care providers in Chicago several times during the last year.
He said the marketing campaign is focusing on Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans in the U.S., starting in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego.
But not everyone interested in Mexican health care has roots in the country.
Anna Levit, 44, who was born in Ukraine, is on the tour and hopes to have much-needed dental work done while she's in Mexico.
"The health care is really good (in the U.S.)," said her son, Eugene Levit, who answered questions for her because he speaks better English. "But people cannot afford it."
The campaign is part of a burgeoning medical tourism trade enticing Americans to seek medical care in Mexico and other countries, including India, Thailand and Costa Rica.
It's projected that as many as 1.6 million Americans will travel overseas for dental or medical care in 2012, according to a report by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, which studies emerging trends, challenges and opportunities in health care.
The reasons include skyrocketing health care costs, comparable standards of safety and quality of care at some health facilities outside the U.S., and a willingness by Americans to travel for care that is safe and less costly, the Deloitte report said.
Though he didn't have statistics on how many U.S. patients travel to Mexico City for health care, Garcia said the numbers have been climbing since Mexican health officials traveled earlier this year to Chicago and other U.S. cities to promote the program.
Taking the tour in Mexico City this week is Dr. Tariq Butt, a family practice physician who said a number of patients treated at clinics operated by Access Community Health Network are traveling to Mexico for some of their medical care. In many cases, they have family there.
"We are aware of other options in other countries, Mexico specifically," said Butt, deputy medical officer for Access, which operates more than 50 community health centers in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. "In the cases where people go to Mexico for treatment, we invite transparency with other health care providers so that information is shared both ways, so both sets of clinicians are in tune with that particular patient's health care needs and procedures that may have been done."
Establishing a system of communication will be crucial to ensure patients receive adequate and timely follow-up care when needed, he said.
Garcia said patients who experience complications will be able to consult with their doctors by phone and will be flown back to the hospital for follow-up treatment in the event of serious problems. The flights will be paid for by the medical provider.
Going outside the U.S. for health care is not without risks. No one tracks complication rates or whether patients are harmed by medical malpractice at higher rates than in U.S. hospitals.
"In the United States, you know you are dealing with overlapping state and federal regulations and a legal system that you know will provide some recourse or at least will treat you the same regardless of where you are treated. This is something you (might) take for granted when you leave U.S. jurisdiction," said Nathan Cortez, an expert in health law.
"Most patients will go to quality facilities in Mexico, but at the same time … this is something that is not without risks, and patients need to educate themselves," said Cortez, an assistant professor at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas.
Among the services being promoted in Mexico City are organ transplants, diabetes care, gastrointestinal procedures and fertility treatment, with the costs 40 to 80 percent cheaper than those in the U.S., Garcia said.
Hospital officials said the care they provide is as good as, or in some cases better, than what patients can receive in Chicago.
"If a patient were to come to Mexico City, he would receive the same quality of care and safety standards because we are Joint Commission-accredited, just like the hospitals in the U.S.," said Nancy Stich, public relations and marketing director for American British Cowdray Medical Center in Mexico City. "In some cases, it's a higher standard of care."
Health professionals taking the tour say they want to judge for themselves.
Angie Millan, president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, said she and her colleagues hear about patients going to Mexico all the time.
"Here in California, our patients cross the border frequently to see a dentist and get regular medical care," said Millan, nursing director for children's medical services for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. "So I'm curious to see if it is equal and the same quality and if they hold the same standards. They believe they have world-class facilities there, so I'm interested in seeing for myself."
Although Millan said Mexican health care can be an option for some patients, she finds the situation sad because many of those who cross the border are uninsured.
"I think having insurance should be a right," she said. "It shouldn't be a privilege."
Although uninsured and underinsured patients are more likely to consider traveling to Mexico City, hospital officials also are appealing to those who have private insurance with high deductibles.
Last year, Aetna's chief medical director for the Midwest visited Mexico City at the invitation of government officials who were eager to tell her about their plans for outreach to the U.S. and wanted input from American insurance companies, said Scot Roskelley, communications director for Aetna's north central region.
The company started a cross-border plan in 2008 called Vitalidad Mexico con Aetna for certain California policyholders receiving health care in the Mexican cities of Mexicali, Tecate and Tijuana.
Roskelley said employers are not clamoring for such programs, but "there is a certain segment of the population that will be interested in it."
During the Mexico City tour, potential patients and health care providers will be guided through hospitals owned by the nation's two largest private hospital networks, Hospital Angeles and Medica Sur, which have Holiday Inns adjacent to their campuses, Garcia said.
"There, they'll be able to see the hotel rooms and talk directly with doctors," Garcia said.
The tourists also will be shown some of the city's 33 public hospitals, though those are not part of the medical tourism program, Garcia said.
Anna Levit, of Arlington Heights, has scheduled a bone graft in her jaw during the trip, the first phase of extensive dental work. She has been told her care would cost about $40,000 in Chicago but closer to $13,000 in Mexico City.