Medical tourism: the high price of a discount

SALT LAKE CITY — Many Utahns are crossing the border for weight loss surgery to save money. The controversial practice is known as medical tourism. But is the discount worth the risk?

Fox 13’s Tamara Vaifanua takes a look.

A summer trip to Mexico for weight loss surgery turned into a nightmare for a group of Utahns.

They all came back with a superbug infection and one died. While there are dangers, others say the procedure saved their life.

“It’s totally changed my life,” said Andrea Bytheway. She has been overweight since she was 16.

“I tried every diet you could think of, weight watchers, keto, HCG, everything," she said.

When her weight hit 303 pounds, Bytheway

considered gastric sleeve surgery. Doctors would remove 80% of her stomach.

“I looked into it in the U.S. and found out my insurance didn’t cover it. It was like $15,000 here," she said.

A friend of a friend had traveled to Tijuana, Mexico for the surgery, so Bytheway did some research.

“You can get it as cheap as about $3,000 to as much as about $7,000," she said.

According to a report featured in the American Journal of Medicine, it’s estimated 1.9 million Americans will travel to foreign countries for medical care this year. That’s up from 1.4 million in 2017.

One of the top reasons is for weight loss surgery. People also travel abroad to be treated for dentistry, cosmetic surgery, cardiac conditions, in vitro fertility, dermatology, liver/kidney transplants and spine surgery.

“I was looking into this one doctor and he’s pretty well-known. He did a lot of studying in the U.S.,” Bytheway said.

Everything checked out OK, but she had some reluctance. She had read about a group of people from Utah who just returned from Mexico after undergoing weight loss surgery.

“Right before I was going, there was a story that came out... All the women getting that bacterial infection," Bytheway said.

She took the risk anyway. She has documented her journey on Instagram.

“I’ve lost 105 total. I tell everyone who asks me, go do it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done," she said.

Niki Evans' experience post-weight loss surgery in Mexico was much more painful.

“It was a rocky road and not the path I wanted to take, but I’m here," she said.

Evans' desire to have more kids nearly took her life.

“I knew I wanted to have more children. But the last pregnancy was hard. I was 80-90 pounds overweight," she said.

In May 2017, the Utah mother had gastric sleeve surgery in Tijuana, Mexico and ran into some complications.

“He took me back into surgery and there was a hole in my stomach. 3 mm, which sounds small, but that’s a lot of liquid that was just pouring into my insides," Evans said.

The doctor sewed up that hole, but when she returned to Utah, she got sick.

“I was full-on infection, a completely collapsed lung," Evans said. "I couldn’t breathe.”

She spent three weeks in the ICU at the University of Utah hospital. She had to get chest surgery and doctors tried several times to drain out the infection from leaks.

“When I showed up at the University of Utah, I was probably four days away from death," Evans said.

For months, the leak wouldn’t heal, so doctors removed her entire stomach.

“There were days where I definitely felt super hopeless. This is how my life is gonna be forever,” she said.

Dr. Anna Ibele is an associate professor of bariatric surgery at the University of Utah hospital. She treated Evans post-Mexico.

“Here you have a person who just wanted to get healthy to lose some weight and they come back and they’re not able to eat for months and months," Ibele said.

Ibele says many of her patients don’t weigh the physical, mental and financial risks when it comes to "medical tourism."

“It’s often billed as a vacation package. So, you go take this fun vacation and have this great weight loss surgery. It all sounds very cosmetic and relaxing," she said.

According to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, with little to no follow up care from a doctor they hardly know who isn’t regulated by the government when problems surface, a patient could suffer the consequences.

“Any complication from surgery done outside the U.S., my insurance doesn’t cover it,” Evans said.

Evans is now buried in debt to the tune of half a million dollars.

“We’re on a payment plan. I might pay off before I die, but I doubt it," she said. "Now, in hindsight, $30,000 sounds like a really good deal.”

Ibele says her patients have endured personal trials.

“There’s a lot of regret and remorse. We’ve seen couples get divorced because of stress and blame placing," she said.

She blames a messy U.S. healthcare system.

“To see someone who is living this nightmare because they were uninsured for their procedure, hoping you would get a cheaper surgery out of it, out of pocket, didn’t really know about the risks or complications, it’s just a big tragedy," Ibele said.

If your insurance won’t pay for the weight loss surgery, some hospitals have payment plans available.

Visit ASMBS.org for more information.

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