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Go South for Sun, Surf, and Surgery

Tijuana rolls out the red carpet for medical tourists, and San Diego could be in a position to reap some of the benefits


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Border into Mexico at Tijuana

Baja California is booming, with tourists flocking south of the border for lobster tacos, secret surf spots, Napa-quality wines... and surgery. Yes, surgery. After a drop in 2008 and 2009, attributable to the recession, swine flu outbreak, and rising drug gang violence, medical tourism is back in a big way in Baja California. Tijuana is feeling the economic boost—to the tune of $46 million—and San Diego is reaping some of the benefits, too. 

Take Jim Byrne, for example. The 70-year-old retired sociologist from Gainesville, Florida, recently spent more than a month in San Diego, traveling across the border to have a new type of cataract surgery—just approved in Mexico but not yet available in the U.S.—done by Dr. Arturo Chayet at the Codet Vision Institute.

“The costs of medical treatment in the U.S. are so high, it’s getting just ridiculous,” Byrne says. “Plus, you get an appointment with a specialist [in Mexico] much quicker.” Byrne’s eye surgery at Codet cost about $4,000 per eye.
His research showed in Europe it would be about $9,000 per eye.

A Baja Tourism Ministry study showed that in 2010, 400,000 people travelled to Baja California seeking medical services, with more than 60 percent of those travelling to Tijuana. Those figures have increased 10 percent in 2011 and 2012. Many Americans head to Tijuana for procedures that are either not covered at all or not fully covered by health insurance plans, like dentistry and eye, cosmetic, and weight-loss surgeries.

“Presently, Tijuana has an objective: The U.S. and Canada markets.”

Fernando Ramírez Luquín, Codet’s administrative director, says the clinic treats about 100 American patients a month, most from Southern California. The number has been steadily increasing since 1995, when American patients began seeking more affordable Lasik surgery (the clinic specializes in Lasik and IntraOcular Lens surgery). He estimates about half the clinic’s American patients stay in San Diego and travel to Tijuana for treatment, like Byrne; the rest stay in Tijuana. In all, Byrne says he made 10 trips across the border, on the clinic’s shuttle. He spent one night in Tijuana, taking advantage of a Codet hotel deal.

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