What Is Medical Tourism?

Any medical procedure, cosmetic or otherwise, is worth careful time and consideration. Will insurance cover the procedure? Is it within your price range? Do you feel comfortable and confident with the surgeon performing the procedure? Are you a good candidate? Do you understand the recovery time?

For many people, cost is the primary impediment to undergoing a cosmetic surgery (as insurance rarely covers cosmetic procedures that aren’t integral to the patient’s health). So, during the decision-making process, many patients choose to “outsource” their medical care by traveling to another country to undergo procedures that may be less expensive. The CDC estimates that up to 750,000 United States residents travel abroad for care each year. While some of these medical “tourists” are immigrants traveling to their home country for care, many are simply looking for cheap surgery: “The most common procedures that people undergo on medical tourism trips include cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and heart surgery.”

However, medical tourism can often result in costs ultimately higher than many patients are willing to pay, often at the expense of their appearance. Take Shauna, a nose job patient recently featured on E! News’ television show, Botched. Shauna, who had two nose jobs performed in Tijuana, Mexico, tells doctors Terry Dubrow and Paul Nassif that the Tijuana doctor charged $2,500 for the rhinoplasty. While that may sound like a significant sum of money, a rhinoplasty typically costs within the ranges of $7,000-$9,000. Minneapolis rhinoplasty experts at Minneapolis Plastic Surgery estimate that the “total costs for standard rhinoplasty, including surgeon’s fee, operating room, anesthesia, and follow-up visits, are approximately $7450.” While this cost varies according to region, patient, and specific procedure, any procedure that costs a full $5,000 less than one with an American Board of Plastic Surgery-certified surgeon is probably one to be wary of.

And, as one might expect, Shauna paid the price for her botched rhinoplasty: When she first woke up, the tip of her nose was purple after the first surgery. The surgeon who had performed the surgery left a piece of “sharp” cartilage, so Shauna returned for another surgery within the year. As soon as she woke up, her nose started dripping with mucus from the nasal cavity, called rhinorrhea, and never stopped. After a third surgery back in America, she was finally able to correct both problems and enjoy her new nose.

What Are the Risks of Medical Tourism?

Is is always a bad idea to travel outside the country for any surgery, including cosmetic ones? Well, not necessarily, but there’s certainly more at stake and opportunities for miscommunication than there would be in America with a board-certified surgeon. For example:

  • Communication may be challenging. If you’re electing to travel outside the country to somewhere you do not speak the language fluently, it could be more difficult to communicate with the doctors and nurses who are your care providers. If there’s a misunderstanding, you may be out of luck. Or, if something goes wrong post-surgery, even an interpreter may be unable to help you.
  • Medical malpractice isn’t guaranteed. Healthcare executive James Goldberg’s 23-year old son died during his leg procedure at a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. Unlike in the United States, Goldberg had no legal way to use a United States attorney to retain insurance or medical malpractice benefits “except in the country where (the patient was damaged, which would have been incredibly expensive and complicated.”
  • Regulation is not standard. Different countries have different rules about what constitutes a “safe” procedure. For example, the blood supply in some countries comes from paid donors, meaning that it isn’t screened for infections in the blood. HIV or other potentially fatal diseases could therefore be passed along in a blood transfusion. From needle practices to medication quality and more, medical tourism requires patients to be much more thorough in their evaluation of a particular surgeon or hospital in order to ensure their understanding of medical care quality.
  • Post-operative care will be hard to find. Especially if the procedure requires long-term recovery, not all international facilities providing low-cost procedures have the capacity to optimally care for any post-op complications that might ensue. If the patient returns to the United States after the surgery, many American surgeons will be reluctant to take on care, especially if there’s any uncertainty about exactly what is done. If the patient took on the surgery outside their insurance system or is uninsured when they develop a complication in America, care can become a grave and expensive problem.

Is Medical Tourism Ever A Good Idea?

The fact of the matter is that medical tourism is growing at an extraordinary rate, and it is possible to find surgeons in other countries who will do a good job at a very low cost. As the American Society for Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery explains, “today, facilities catering to medical tourism may involve either locally trained staff or physicians, or sometimes may involve physicians trained and employed in the United States who travel to international facilities to participate in the care of patients.” So, these facilities do exist.

On the other hand, “there are benefits in terms of cost but you take an additional risk by going somewhere that you’re not sure of the quality that you’re getting. You’re not sure of the accreditation of both the physicians and the institution and you’re taking a risk,” said Dr. Claudette Lajam from New York University Langone Medical Center on “CBS This Morning.” “If something goes wrong, then what do you do?” It’s precisely this risk factor that can, and should deter any patient who isn’t 100% clear on the policies, accreditation, care, quality standards, and treatments they’ll be receiving.

From credentials to health care provider qualifications, you need to make sure that you’re fully educated and up-to-date on both the facility itself and the legal actions you can take if anything goes wrong. You should either have an interpreter or speak the language in the country, and be very clear in how you’ll communicate with those caring for you. Finally, you should have a written agreement with the facility arranging the trip to outline exactly what costs are associated with your procedure.

It’s always a good idea to speak with a medical practitioner beforehand, someone who can navigate the ins and outs of your trip for you. Understand that medical tourism comes hand in hand with a boatload of risks, even if there are some benefits.

Questions? Comments? Want to learn more about medical tourism or medical tourism for cosmetic procedures? Leave a comment in the section below, anytime!

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