The coronavirus pandemic has pushed millions of Americans into poverty and stripped more than 5.4 million of them of their health insurance, according to a study by Families USA, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy group.
Many people have put off medical procedures, and seen their health deteriorate significantly. The fear of large medical bills has outweighed fear of contagion for some, giving rise to an increased number of patients seeking medical treatment in a foreign country.
“We are seeing a pent-up demand for medical tourism during the pandemic, particularly in the U.S. where a fast-growing number of Americans are traveling across the land border with Mexico for health purposes,” said David G. Vequist IV, the founder of the Center for Medical Tourism Research and a professor at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
Even before the pandemic, millions of Americans traveled to other countries for savings of 40 to 80 percent on medical treatments, according to the global medical tourism guide Patients Beyond Borders. Mexico and Costa Rica have become the most popular destinations for dental care, cosmetic surgery and prescription medicines, while Thailand, India and South Korea draw patients for more complex procedures involving orthopedics, cardiovascular issues, cancer and fertility treatment.
In 2019, 1.1 percent of Americans traveling internationally did so for health treatments, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office, although that figure accounts only for those who went by air.
Medical tourism has been decimated by coronavirus restrictions, but, even so, the twin crises of the economy and the enormous strain that Covid-19 has placed on the already faulty American health care system are pushing many patients to travel. Demand for nonessential surgeries has also been building up after more than 177,000 scheduled surgeries were postponed in the United States between March and June last year, according to the Center for Medical Tourism Research.