Going abroad to do a medical procedure, also known as medical tourism, is becoming a more widespread in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 750,000 Americans travel to another country, usually a less developed one, to obtain medical care every year. The numbers are only growing over time.
Patients have many reasons for electing medical tourism, but most do it to save money. This is especially inviting for cosmetic surgery, which can be much more expensive in the United States.
For example, average costs for medical procedures can be reduced by 65 percent in Turkey, Mexico and Costa Rica. In India, patients can potentially save up to 90 percent.
However, there are potential drawbacks. Dr. Robert Singer, plastic surgeon and board member of the American Association for Accreditation of Ambulatory Surgery Facilities International (AAAASFI) warns of possible facility quality issues.
“The quality of the hospitals outside of the United States varies tremendously. Many of the patients have procedures done in a clinic or office unrelated to a hospital, and it may never be inspected,” Singer said.
“In addition, many of the hospitals are not up to U.S. standards and have no accreditation. Most countries don’t have any regulation or required accreditation of surgical facilities.”
Even if the clinic is in good shape, the surgeons and staff members (such as nurses and anesthesia providers) may lack proper training or credentials.
Additionally, the distance makes it difficult to communicate with the doctor both before and after the surgery. Potential language barriers can also compromise care.
“There is no reasonable patient-doctor relationship,” Singer said.
For those who want to go abroad for a cosmetic procedure, it is essential to do research on the surgeon and facility overseas. Medical tourists often choose to hire a private company, or “medical concierge” to search for the facility.
Singer said that patients should look for facility accreditation by an international accrediting organization such as AAAASFI.
Patients should also ask if the surgeon is qualified by an international organization such as International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS).
“That’s not a guarantee, but it says something,” said Singer.
Complications may arise while traveling long distances like fatigue, dehydration and much more serious ones like deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism. Unregulated facilities can also lead to life-threatening infections.
“I see multiple patients from Asia, Eastern Europe, Central and South America, Mexico, with absolute disasters,” Singer said.
Fixing the problems at home can end up costing patients more than they saved in the first place. And unfortunately, if complications do occur, patients may have difficulty taking legal action against the surgeon or hospital.
To minimize the risk of physical and legal complications, patients should take precautions.
Patients should consult a travel medical practitioner at least four to six weeks before the procedure to obtain information on how to travel healthily.
According to the CDC, patients should not fly in an airplane until 10 days after a chest or abdominal surgery to minimize risks associated with air pressure changes.
The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery recommends that post-operative patients avoid activities such as drinking alcohol, sunbathing, taking long tours or engaging in strenuous exercise.
Patients should prepare prior medical records and lists of prescriptions to bring abroad, and obtain copies of new medical records to bring back home. Patients should also sign a written agreement with the surgeon and facility to detail the procedure and its costs.
Even with precautions, Singer recommends that patients who decide on medical tourism reevaluate their decision.
“In my point of view, patients should travel for pleasure and do surgery closer to home,” he said. “You can bargain for sandals and T-shirts, but you only have one body. Generally you get what you pay for.”
Medical Tourism. CDC Travelers. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
Medical Tourism - Getting Medical Care in Another Country. CDC. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
Medical Tourism Statistics & Facts. Patients Beyond Borders. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
Phone Interview with Dr. Robert Singer, 11/24/14.
Recovery, Aftercare and Complications. International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Retrieved December 5, 2014.
Reviewed December 5, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN