For a growing number of Americans, cosmetic surgery seems socially acceptable and it's even something many plan to do during their lifetime — when they have sufficient funds. In 2017, 17.5 million Americans decided to enhance their appearance within U.S. borders, along with an estimated 3 million more who traveled abroad as medical tourists.
Driving the growth of this smaller but burgeoning medical tourism group are the stagnating wages and lingering ill effects of a decade-long great recession recovery. Americans who desire, but cannot afford the high cost of cosmetic procedures locally, are drawn outside U.S. borders by prices that are typically 35-75% lower elsewhere. The price of U.S. aesthetic plastic surgery is driven by the soaring costs of malpractice insurance, medical education and surgeon salaries. In other countries, comparative board-certified medical education fees and surgeon salaries are much lower, and malpractice insurance is virtually unheard of.
In San Diego, CA for instance, the average cost of a facelift is $13,000 while just 15 minutes south in adjacent Tijuana, Mexico, a facelift averages $5,000. It is no wonder then that each year a growing number of Americans are choosing board-certified Tijuana plastic surgeons for affordable, high quality care — in spite of a lingering collective fear about medical care and safety beyond U.S. borders.
Given the increasing acceptance and appetite for cosmetic surgery, this fear of going elsewhere for procedures is something that the Tijuana medical community is hoping to change. And it already is changing, following the reformation of culture and policies underlying much of Tijuana’s dangerous and raunchy past. Brothels and bars have been cleaned up. Gang wars and cartel leaders have been policed and arrested. Now there are bilateral agreements between political leaders on both sides of the border to continue building world-class facilities and infrastructure to facilitate economic development in this new mega-region. Binational business leaders have also committed to leverage the unique attributes and geographical proximity of San Diego and Tijuana in order to drive prosperity and enhance cultural diversity. Tijuana is becoming its own art scene, and fitness and environmental activists from both sides of the border collaborate to create events that bring millions of tourist dollars into the Baja.
And business is booming. In the past several decades, international investors have poured nearly 6 billion dollars into Tijuana’s manufacturing space. The city is home to over 600 international manufacturing maquiladoras, producing hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare devices, aerospace equipment, automobiles, electronics and consumer products. Straddled alongside one of the busiest land border crossings in the world, the city is an important gateway to U.S. markets and beyond. This unique positioning of industry and geography between cities provides companies on both sides of the border a comparative advantage in a global economy. As industry has prospered, so too has the standard of living, even drawing Americans across the line to buy or rent in new, modern housing communities. Healthcare provider Blue Shield of California launched an “Access Baja HMO” medical plan in the early 2000’s to those who live and work across international borders, supporting those who might choose a Tijuana doctor. The gentrification of Tijuana appears to be in full swing. The city’s dynamic cross-border economy and culture is inexorably linked to its American neighbor, San Diego.
All this change has helped fuel the healthcare industry in Tijuana by drawing highly skilled Mexican plastic surgeons to the area to gain access to larger, more affluent markets in the U.S. And while price is a primary driving factor for patients traveling to Tijuana, surgeons can charge more near the U.S. border than in Mexico City for instance, while still giving American patients a significant price reduction. According to a 2008 study by Deloitte, 39% of Americans would consider going to a foreign country for an elective procedure if the quality was comparable and the savings was 50% or more than in the United States. Tijuana prices average 55% lower than in San Diego. And while safety and quality are often mentioned as obstacles to many patients choosing surgery abroad, respondents of the study stated that international accreditation can provide reassurance of safety and quality. In Tijuana, Mexican board-certified plastic surgeons are accredited by the Asociacion Mexicana de Cirugia Plastica Estetica y Reconstructiva, A.C. - the Mexican accreditation body comparable to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Some have membership or affiliation with other US organizations and international non-profits, performing surgery on both sides of the border.
When it comes to facilities, Tijuana has many modern plastic and reconstructive surgery centers. These are generally smaller clinics dedicated to cosmetic surgery procedures, often with higher staff-to-patient ratios, and less exposure than in large hospitals to other patients who may have bacterial infections or viruses. Many have overnight facilities for their out-of-town patients, and are located within 1-3 miles the border, with many good hotels nearby for assisting family and friends. Post-surgery follow-up visits are just a short drive from San Diego.
In short, medical tourism is a growing industry and Tijuana is responding to meet the demand. New, modern clinics and hospitals are being built, highly trained and board-certified surgeons are moving into the city, and marketing campaigns are being directed at patients beyond Mexican borders. One big difference in marketing between the countries is that Mexican surgeons post their pricing. This is virtually unheard of in the U.S. For Americans doing comparison shopping, this new affordable, high-quality option for cosmetic surgery has changed the dynamic for them, introducing a consumer approach to their plastic surgery research. Along with social sites geared towards plastic surgery like RealSelf.com, a potential cosmetic surgery patient is much more equipped to make an educated decision about whether or not to have a surgery, how much to pay, where to have it done, and by whom. In Tijuana, this type of relationship between patient and doctor is culturally natural. In Mexico, the patient has always been seen as an equal partner to the doctor in deciding what's best for their personal healthcare.