For years, Mexicali has been the hot and dusty city that stood as the barrier between California and the idyllic beaches of San Felipe. Nobody gave Mexicali a second thought as they drove through with their car windows rolled up and the air conditioning on full blast. For most tourists, the memorable part of Mexicali was waiting for hours in the border line on a Sunday evening to cross back into the USA. Few tourists even recognized that the city was the capital of the State of Baja California, assuming that the much bigger and more “Americanized” city of Tijuana filled that role.
Now, however, Mexicali is starting to take a little of the glory away from Tijuana by promoting its medical and dental prowess.
If you live anywhere in the San Diego/Los Angeles region, Tijuana has been the natural place to go for cheap medical and dental care. Even hopeless cancer cases were sent to Tijuana for experimental treatments as a last ditch effort to prolong the patients life. Laetrile became the hot topic for chemotherapy in the 70′s and 80′s and this substance, made from the kernels of peaches and almonds, was probably the biggest single driver in getting Tijuana on the map for innovative health care issues.
Laetrile fell by the wayside as a result of some suspected poisonings being caused by the hydrocyanic acid (“bitter almonds”) that was a naturally occurring byproduct of the fermentation process to make the drug. A brief resurgence of its use came with the fad to treat high blood pressure but there were never the convincing, documented cases to show that the drug was of any use. In the USA, The FDA has never approved Laetrile for medical treatments.
Retirees who come to San Felipe have known for years that they can save substantially on their medical bills by seeking care in Mexico. Routine dental care, for example, is very cost-effective in San Felipe and fillings, crowns and bridges are a fraction of the cost in California and a boon for the many elderly people who have no dental insurance. However, when it comes to more involved procedures, say for a root-canal, a trip to Mexicali or Los Algodones is generally needed.
A few years ago the border town of Los Algadones, some 40 miles east of Mexicali and close to the winter snowbird settlements of Yuma, became the center for cheap prescription drugs, eyeglasses and dental work. Indeed, medical tourism there is the dominant source of income for the region.
Now Mexicali has decided to capitalize on the medical tourism business as a source of new revenue. A recent article in the New York Times discusses the trend which is particularly important to the uninsured population of the Imperial Valley. In addition, families at all income levels, in all regions of the United States, are now seeking care that is not covered by any insurance that they do have. An increasingly popular procedure that is being performed in Mexicali is the gastric-bypass and lap-band surgery for the obese. Cosmetic surgery is also on the rise. I recall one local resident of San Felipe who had the bypass surgery done for well under $1000. There is no doubt that these complex medical procedures can be performed in Mexicali as safely as in many hospitals in the USA.
The troubling, long term, aspect of this shift of procedures to Mexico is the critical follow-up that is needed as a result of the surgery. Baryatric surgery, for example requires that the patient be followed carefully because, almost always, the patient does not stick to the very restrictive diet that is imposed. When a patient must travel many hours by road to re-visit the surgeon, there is a tendency to delay or ignore scheduled appointments. This is far less of a problem when visiting the Tijuana hospitals because there is a good coastal air, rail and road transportation corridor between Los Angeles and the border, and both San Diego and Tijuana have international airport service for people who must come from afar.
At present, Mexicali is running a bus between Las Vegas and the medical providers in the city – a good first start, but only when Mexicali becomes a major city with airline connections to the important US hubs can this new form of tourism really take off.
You can read the New York Times article “Mexicali Tour, From Tummy Tuck to Root Canal” here (subscription required) ..>>
On the local front, in San Felipe, one hears that Salvador Flores of Campo Ocotillos died of a massive heart attack last night. Our condolences go out to his family, particularly to his daughter Abril who worked with us at The Net for several years.