If you started following me, my Instagram and my blog recently you probably thought that I’m just like any other woman, carefreely traveling the world in pretty outfits. It’s hard to imagine that less than 2 years ago, however, I was sharing with you my photos and stories about my psoriasis. This is a story of my medical tourism in Mexico.
I was a contributor to a psoriasis column for two health publications, and while learning more self-confidence to ignore my flares by doing what I planned on doing and dressing how I planned on dressing or undressing, psoriasis has been a big part of my life. At some point, however, my psoriasis stopped being a problem and so I paused writing about it.
Did my psoriasis get cured? I’m sorry to disappoint, but psoriasis isn’t something that can be ‘cured’ forever as there’s no forever fix to an overactive immune system.
Did I learn to accept my condition? While I have realized that there’s no cure and I must live with it, I actually didn’t even think about it.
What changed then?
I stopped traveling full-time.
Since I left the Netherlands back in 2014 I’ve been bouncing between the US and London for a while, but without a proper base. By the time I moved to Playa del Carmen in Mexico my psoriasis was a complete mess, as you could see in some of my photos.
When you’re working remotely while traveling, this can sometimes lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. Working long hours or during awkward times without a routine or schedule can make one stressed or tired, especially if you have clients in different time zones.
In my case, I’ve left my skin without any treatment or care, and as a result, I was almost completely covered in psoriasis spots. I thought that my will to live just like any other human without a chronic disease was strong enough, and while mentally it was, physically my body didn’t really get the memo.
Over the years, various doctors in different countries have been testing multiple forms of treatment on me and every time I was moving they liked to start the entire psoriasis therapy from the beginning: topical creams, UV lights, steroid creams, charcoal products and other things that never really worked for me.
Knowing what I know about my illness and by researching a lot I decided to treat myself. One might say that we need doctors to tell us what to do and what medicines to take, and while it’s true you also know your body best.
Becoming My Own Doctor in Mexico
By visiting different doctors in public and private sectors in Poland, United Kingdom, United States, Netherlands or Mexico I saw that dermatologists simply aren’t always able to follow up with every single new drug for psoriasis that comes out.
They treat many different conditions and with many drugs being available in some countries but not all, so many times it came down to them telling me that I need to tell them what kind of prescription do I need from them and whether they can provide it or not.
If you’ve been dealing with psoriasis for some years now you might know exactly what I’m talking about. We, those who deal with this condition have to research everything, see what works for us and basically treat ourselves with doctor’s supervision.
Once I settled in Mexico I researched all my options. As a digital nomad with no health insurance (no travel insurance covers chronic conditions) my options were limited to self-funded drugs.
In Mexico, most drugs are available over the counter. Quite often tourists and locals go to Mexico just to buy medicines, as they’re available over the country and are much cheaper. Not surprisingly I was able to get Methotrexate, an oral medicine, over the counter for psoriasis that I was prescribed back in the Netherlands.
With one small difference. In the Netherlands, despite my health insurance and prescription I had to pay 55 Euros a month for these pills and required weekly visits at the hospital for a check-up. It was expensive and required me to work from home for a day.
In Mexico, I could simply go to a pharmacy and ask for the box of Methotrexate, no questions asked. It was the same exact drug in the same exact box I was receiving it in the Netherlands, but I had to pay 80 Pesos for a monthly supply, which is around 3.50 Euros.
As I’ve had experience with this drug before I knew what to expect, double-checked the right dosage and controlled my blood tests, which can also be cheaply done in Mexico. By saying that I knew what to expect I knew that I’d feel bad after it, as it’s a strong dangerous drug and it’s often used to treat cancer, in bigger doses naturally.
Being my only available option I was happy with the results. My skin partially cleared up and before Matt and I left Mexico we were able to stock up on more boxes.
Psoriasis Treatment in the USA
When we moved to the US and set up health insurance, I was able to see the dermatologist and after explaining what I’ve been taking, showing photos and the stages of my skin, I was able to receive the correct biological drugs without any issues.
I’ve been wanting to quit Methotrexate, as you cannot take it for 6 months before even thinking of getting pregnant. (I wrote more on psoriasis and pregnancy here)
No one has asked me to show proof of previous medical history (which would be difficult, as the Netherlands won’t send your medical history to the US for instance), told to try stupid not working topical treatments all over again.
My doctor and I decided to try Stelara, one dose every three months that I had to inject myself with. Truth to be told it worked miracles. Within a month my psoriasis has cleared completely. While we paid a significant amount of money for US health insurance as self-employed, my insurance had no issues with anything and I was happy.
Left: before Stelara. Right: after 2 doses of Stelara.
Until We Moved to Europe…
As Stelara, Humira and other biological drugs for autoimmune diseases got finally approved in some places in Europe, they’re officially being subsidized by the national public health system.
After we canceled our US insurance we were denied residency in Italy and as a result, couldn’t enter the Italian health system. Our only option was getting private insurance, which isn’t actually a bad option for more people – just not for those who require biological treatment.
The problem is that biological immunosuppressant drugs are insanely expensive due to patent issues, hence why affordable alternatives cannot enter the market until 2022. Hence why no insurance company wants to pay for them.
Due to my pre-existing conditions and Stelara treatment I had to disclose, basically all expat insurances and private insurance companies in Europe decided to reject me. I’m not talking about not covering my biological drugs but rejecting me from the insurance.
It actually caused a giant mess that forced me to fly very last-minute from Italy to Poland to give birth in a private hospital, as Italian hospital decided not to accept me without insurance that I couldn’t obtain.
When I finally give up on signing up for national health insurance in Italy and Poland, as we weren’t able to do either, I thought I’d just use my savings and pay for my medicine out of pocket until we’re able to get on the US health insurance again.
Truth to be told, I’m one of a few people who like the US insurance but despises US pharmacological companies’ greed. The system isn’t ideal, leaving many without health coverage due to high insurance prices, but as pharma companies keep increasing prices of drugs out of green, the insurance gets more expensive. However, if you actually need specific treatment or surgery, it works. At least it always worked for me.
Speaking from my experience with European public insurances (which nota bene aren’t “free” as Americans like to state, because your employer actually pays for it out of your payslip), I remember even my family members waiting 2 years for surgery or over 6 months for a specialist visit and yes, that also includes oncologists. This is why many people go privately and pay out of pocket if they need to get something done quickly and efficiently. Which proved to be true…
Trying to Get Biological Drugs in Europe
Everyone’s impression was that once you actually have the insane amount of money to pay for a medicine you need, you’ll be able to get it. This wasn’t exactly true.
I visited various doctors in Italy, Poland, UK and heard the same thing over and over again: we won’t prescribe it to you.
Dermatologists I visited either had no clue about Stelara’s existence or told me they don’t support biological drugs and won’t prescribe them. One doctor said the only way I could get it would be to go through the entire therapy with topical creams, UV lights, and Methotrexate, confirm its failure again, then check myself to a hospital and ‘maybe’ I’d be able to receive it there.
This is when I turned to my good old Mexico for help again…
Getting Stelara in Mexico
Upon my research and help of my friends, I was able to get a confirmation that I could get a prescription for Stelara, assuming I’m paying for the drug itself out of pocket.
I ended up calling up multiple pharmacies in Mexico and found out that I can pick up Stelara from a pharmacy in Mexico City. And more importantly, it costs only 68,500 MXN (approx. $3530). I specifically said ‘only’, because in the US since January 1st 2019 when pharmaceutical companies increased prices, the retail price of a supply of 0.5 milliliters of Stelara is around $10,770. I need 4 doses per year.
Psoriasis is extremely expensive.
I’m not surprised that Utah insurance companies prefer to send people to Mexico to get their drugs and come back. While I’ve had experience with buying drugs in Mexico before, I had no clue how would it look like to get a special drug. But, it turned out to be easier than ever, but frankly, if I didn’t speak fluent Spanish I would have had to ask someone to do it for me.
Upon my arrival in Mexico City I checked the pharmacy website in the morning to see if Stelara is available – It was. I then called them to ask which branch I should visit and found out that Zocalo pharmacy has one.
Even though I’ve lived in Mexico City before and wandered around Zocalo (historic center) a bunch of times, I never noticed a whole street filled mostly with pharmacies. To the extent, there were 3 pharmacies at one intersection, one of which was the one I was looking for – Farmacia Especializada.
Sidenote: I later found out that a pharmacy next door – Farmacia de Paris, is actually a historic spot from 1944 that continues to develop more than 100 remedies on site. It also has a pretty historic system of getting the medicine out of the cellar, which works like the carousel – you should see it for yourself.
Farmacia Especializada sells a lot of expensive medicine, but it’s still a ‘Mexican-style’ pharmacy which means it’s a pretty open-air type of shop with counters almost on the street. Hence why it was surrounded by a few security guards.
The whole process took about 10 minutes, no questions asked. I received Stelara packed perfectly in a big cooler. As I wanted to stock up I asked for another one, but as they needed to order it I was told to come back in 2 days. What, ironically, was faster than when I had to order it in California.
As you can see medical tourism in Mexico has saved me twice. When I shared my story on my Instagram post, many of my followers decided to share their medical tourism stories. Do you have any questions? Want to share your story or concern? Write it below in the comment section.