While most headlines about Mexico involve immigration or drugs, there is another giant sucking sound coming from our south.

That’s the sound of medical tourism dollars. (Shown is the Atlantic Health International Hospital in Mazatlan, from the Mexico Buyers Guide blog.)

Last week the Institute of the Americas hosted a conference in La Jolla, near San Diego, about the topic.

The Deloitte Center for Medical Solutions predicted a surge in Mexican medical tourism with the end of the recession.

Many Americans already get their drugs in Mexico — there are 345 pharmacies near the Tijuana border alone — but now we’re talking about real procedures. Baby boomers especially are being targeted.

The La Jolla Light covered the event, noting that an angioplasty costing up to $80,000 in San Diego could cost one-tenth as much across the border. The reason is the same one fruit pickers use in taking Mexican workers — cost. A nurse who makes $75,000 here may make $12,000 there, and malpractice rates are low, too.

Of the nearly 1 million Americans who went to Mexico for medical care last year, about half were not Mexican immigrants. UPDATE: The figure from the La Jolla Light article is 952,000 traveling to Mexico for care. The article also notes there are 1 million American retirees now living in Mexico, getting regular care from Mexican doctors.

A lot of privately-owned hospitals are now being built in Mexico to meet American demand, with state of the art facilities. Medical Tourism Corp. adds that in addition to cost savings, some procedures that are new or not-yet approved in the U.S. are commonplace there.

The Joint Commission International accredits medical tourism facilities, and Health-Tourism.com lists eight major facilities there that are accredited. The site also offers a price comparison, noting that many common procedures cost 50-75% less there, and the savings on heart operations there are really spectacular.

I wrote here in 2008 about how Mexican medical tourism was growing more organized, and last year about how companies that self-insure risk are encouraging patients to travel, sharing the savings with them.

Maybe that giant sucking sound Ross Perot heard years ago was just coming from a dentist’s chair.