By Lynn Brezosky
When executive Sergio Mendez Torres escapes his fast-paced life in Mexico City for some laid-back time in the family’s second home in North San Antonio, catching up on doctor appointments is as high on his to-do list as golf outings and trips to Costco.
“Here it’s more comfortable, easier — I don’t have to deal with all the traffic,” he said in Spanish as he and his wife waited to see a dermatologist in a newly built building in Stone Oak.
“I feel like the doctors here are always a step ahead,” he added. “Here it’s standard to have the latest equipment.”
The doctor, Vivian Bucay, entered, greeting the couple as old friends as she scanned their charts, examined Mendez Torres’ worrisome skin spots.
“Every one of my patients today has come from Mexico,” she said.
Down the road, fertility specialist Dr. Francisco Arredondo estimated that 18 percent of his clientele is coming from Mexico.
Medical tourism — going outside one’s country for medical care — is a global phenomenon, with a recent study pegging its value at about $100 billion for 2012, up from about $40 billion in 2004. Americans are among the biggest consumers, seeking procedures like hip replacements in Brazil, in vitro fertilization in Russia and angioplasties in Singapore.
Inbound tourism — foreigners paying top dollar, and usually cash, for care in the United States — is a small but highly competitive segment of the market.
Houston’s Texas Medical Center has long been a dominant player, attracting more than 10,000 international patients a year and sporting buildings named for Arab sheiks who donated heavily after receiving care there.
Among the first to study the phenomenon was David Vequist, founder and director of the Center for Medical Tourism at the University of the Incarnate Word.
San Antonio, he said, may never be a Houston, which over the years has developed a coordinated approach, with the International Affairs Advisory Council devoted to courting foreign patients.
But there are things doctors, institutions, and the city itself can do to raise San Antonio’s medical profile, he said.
“My humble belief is we could get more engaged,” he said.
Doctors Bucay and Arredondo say San Antonio’s proximity to Mexico, its recent surge of wealthy Mexican home buyers fleeing drug violence, and strong familial and business connections to Mexico give it a natural advantage over other U.S. cities.
Both Bucay and Arredondo are native Spanish speakers. Arredondo grew up in the northern Mexican border city of Matamoros. Bucay and her husband, a Mexican-born cardiologist, spent about eight years practicing medicine in Mexico City.
They say they understand the cultural norms of medicine south of the border.
The “personal touch” is key, Bucay said, and U.S. physicians have a reputation for being detached. “There’s nothing like face to face.”
When she and her husband decided to return to the United States, they picked San Antonio over Houston.
“It was closest to Mexico, (there were) nonstop flights, and the area needed dermatologists who spoke Spanish,” she said. “We also said, ‘Houston’s going to be very cutthroat.’”
They rely heavily on word of mouth and personal contacts with doctors in Mexico. The doctors provide direct referrals to their San Antonio counterparts, and in return may provide follow-up care.
Medical concierge services, a niche industry led by doctors such as Mexican-trained Andres Ibarra, have opened another steady stream of patients.
Ibarra’s describes his Antonian Health as “an agency for the coordination of logistics.”
“My clients say, ‘You guys are like the GPS of the Medical Center,’” he said.
The agency’s Spanish-language brochure is packed with advertisements from doctors offering weight-loss surgeries, robot-assisted urological procedures, plastic surgery and cancer treatment, with at least one touting a discount for international patients.
Ibarra’s company makes patients’ appointments and transfers their records, picks them up at the airport, provides hotel discounts and will even pick up tickets for family members to go to SeaWorld or other attractions.
Attracting first-time clients to San Antonio was a challenge, he said, because they automatically thought of Houston.
“They all think about Houston, MD Anderson (Cancer Center) as the best of the best,” he said. “The thing is that probably about three years ago we started having a lot of migration of doctors from Houston, MD Anderson. Now we have like six big facilities of hematology and cancer treatment and research here in San Antonio. And it’s growing fast, fast, fast.”
Of the region’s major hospital systems, the Methodist Healthcare System probably has been the most active. Methodist representatives join the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau on their periodic trips to Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey to promote the city to travel agencies and media.
The effort dates back 20 years, before Mexico toppled into an economic crisis in 1994, said hospital representatives Mario Pastrana and Palmira Arellano.
“The value for us doing this is basically economical and strategical,” Pastrana said. “When you’re talking about getting international patients, you don’t compete locally … you compete against systems in Houston, New York, Boston, Miami.
“What we wanted to do was send a message that here in San Antonio we also can take care of international patients,” he said. “And definitely we’re an alternative — sometimes better than other systems.”