Medical travel to Mexico: high profile death

Map of Mexico to represent medical travel to Mexico

Mexican authorities are probing the death of a Guatemalan diplomat’s wife following cosmetic surgery in Tijuana at an unlicensed hospital.  Will this latest tragedy provide the momentum Mexico needs to get a grip on medical regulation and quality of service?

Mistakes and problems from medical tourism in Mexico, including deaths, may be expected in a country with so many medical tourists. But the death of a diplomat’s wife has heightened the profile of the risks associated with its medical travel sector.

Baja state officials say that the private hospital where the surgery was supposed to take place had been operating without a license for two months, and the director running it is not a doctor.

The attorney general’s office for Baja California has opened a criminal investigation into the death of María José Chacón, the 38-year-old wife of Henry Giovanni Ortiz Asturias, the Guatemalan consul in Denver. She died on July 4th after collapsing and being taken by ambulance to the Tijuana Red Cross Hospital. Doctors told her family she died of organ failure stemming from a cosmetic operation she had undergone on June 24th.

The surgery was scheduled to take place at Hospital Jerusalem. Two months prior to Chacón’s surgery, on April 20, the State Commission for Protection Against Health Risks, COEPRIS, had closed that hospital’s facilities for not having proper licenses to continue operating. Prior to its permanent closure, on January 31, the state health agency issued a suspension for the business.

COEPRIS said in a WhatsApp message that the hospital staff ignored the state order to close and continued receiving and operating on patients. Chacón was scheduled to be one of them.  The authorities claim that the hospital disregarded the suspension and committed a crime by removing the suspension seals and carrying out an operation that resulted in the death of a patient at Hospital Jerusalem in Playas de Tijuana.

Reasons for the hospital’s January suspension included not having an updated health department notice; not displaying a current health license; having an on-site pharmacy that did not have a health license; and having more than 800 different medications for which it did not have the correct authorisation.

The state health agency also found there were people practising medicine and nursing without having a degree and professional license accrediting them. The hospital was issued with a fine of US$1.9 million that has not been paid.

After Chacón’s death, the state attorney general’s office searched the private clinic and state health authorities returned to replace the suspension seals on the front doors of the building. The original yellow seals had been removed and some had been painted over with white paint.

According to the investigation, Chacón contacted the director of Hospital Jerusalem in 2021 to inquire about cosmetic surgery. State law enforcement officials say Juan Betancourt, the director of the clinic, replied by text message that he did not need to do a physical exam with her, prior to the surgery, and scheduled it for June 16th 2022.

Investigators with the attorney general’s office said that when Betancourt and his team examined Chacón pre-op, they decided to postpone the surgery and recommended she follow a special diet until June 21st. On that day, Betancourt told Chacón that a problem in the operating room prevented him from being able to operate on her then. Chacón stayed the night at the clinic and elected to have the surgery the following day, according to prosecutors.

On June 22nd, while Chacón was supposed to be in surgery, her family went to the clinic to visit and check on her. They found padlocks on the main doors of the closed hospital. Betancourt reassured the family that hospital staff had gone to a nearby store for a moment, and the building was only temporarily closed.

The next day, on June 23rd, Chacón told her family that she had been moved to Hospital Florence in the city’s upscale Cacho neighbourhood. There, she said, she was operated on by someone named José Luis Tokunaga without her authorisation or permission of her family, according to state officials. She was then transferred back to Hospital Jerusalem, where Betancourt could not explain to her or her husband why she was moved. Ten days later, she died.

Baja California officials have worked to build Tijuana into a centre of medical tourism for Americans.

The deaths and infections in recent years feed concerns about a lack of oversight in the industry in Baja California.

Officials in Baja California’s medical tourism industry argue it is within the financial interest of Tijuana practitioners to police each other to avoid unsafe conditions and infections.