06/13/2013 03:15 EDT | Updated 08/13/2013 05:12 EDT

British Columbians heading south to shed excess pounds

Long wait lists are prompting an increasing number of British Columbians to head south to the U.S. and Mexico to pay for weight loss surgery.

Nanci Walsh and Brie Puleston, a mother and daughter from Vancouver Island, recently headed to Puerto Vallarta for an operation called a vertical sleeve gastrectomy.

“I started looking for weight loss for myself. Then my daughter ended up having a medical condition,” Walsh told CBC News.

“We sent her to an endocrinologist. He said the hormone deficiency that she had was something they hardly see these days."

Bariatric surgery is recognized as the only effective treatment for morbid obesity and its complications, like diabetes, sleep apnea and high blood pressure.

In B.C., wait lists for bariatric surgery can be four years or longer, even for patients with seriously obesity-related health problems.

And the number of weight loss surgeries done under B.C.’s public health system has been drastically reduced in recent years. In Victoria, where most of the bariatric surgeries in B.C. are conducted, the number of procedures was cut to 52 in 2010-11 from 124 in 2008.

Canadians, Americans seeking surgery

"In Canada you can't get it done privately,” Walsh said.

“It varies from $18,000 to $30,000 in the [United] States. Then I heard on the obesity forums that Mexico was approximately $5,000. I did a lot of research because Mexico really scared me, taking my only daughter down to Mexico. Dr. Lopez's name came up 101 times.”

Dr. Alejandro Lopez, 32, says he's performed over 2,000 weight loss surgeries over the past five years.

He and his wife Jacqueline Osuna are among dozens of bariatric surgeons in Mexico. Almost all their patients are from the U.S. and Canada.

When asked how many Canadians he treats, Lopez says 30 to per cent or 40 per cent of his patients are Canadian and the rest are from the U.S.

Walsh and Puleston underwent surgery at a private hospital near the resort. As much as 85 per cent of their stomachs were removed. Surgeons then stapled and stitched the remains, leaving a small pouch that holds only a tiny amount of food.

Within two days, Walsh and Puleston were back in their hotel rooms to recover.

'Very complicated very fast'

But it doesn't always go so well for medical tourists in Mexico — some experience complications, infections or even death.

An Alberta study tracked serious complications among medical tourists who ended up in an Edmonton hospital after weight loss surgery.

Dr. Daniel Birch, who led the study, says he still sees medical tourists who come home without any plans for follow-up care.

"It can get very complicated very fast for these people, and we certainly empathize with them, but you know some of these procedures such as the sleeve gastrectomy, when it's done it's done and there's not a lot to correct or reverse a lot of the significant challenges that can occur," he said.

"It's never a pleasant experience to be staring in the eyes of a patient who clearly had not thought this through and is now faced with some very challenging decisions."

Birch says patients some patients are driven to seek treatment abroad because health officials in B.C. don't recognize obesity as a chronic disease.

"Because of bias and ignorance, people are not willing to accept obesity as a chronic disease that deserves treatment, whereas other diseases do deserve treatment."

Both Walsh and Puleston recognize the operation is only half the battle, and the rest will be up to them.

"I'm getting married in 2014, a year and a half. I'm hoping in a year and a half I'll be close to my [goal] weight," Puleston said.

The B.C. Liberal government promised a review of bariatric surgery, saying the province would look at creating a provincial program for bariatric surgery. The report was supposed to be completed in early 2011 but still has not been released.

CBC reporter Deborah Wilson’s work on this story was supported by a journalism award from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.