Earlier this year, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons cautioned Americans about the practice of medical tourism. Their warning was specifically regarding individuals seeking plastic surgery procedures outside of the United States. The ASPS acknowledged that there are many professional, skilled surgeons performing plastic surgeries around the world, but many people find that traveling abroad for plastic surgery may be more difficult, costly and result in more complications than they think.
The ASPS is not the only organization cautioning would be medical tourists. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about 750,000 Americans travel outside of the U.S. for medical care, including plastic surgery. The CDC reports that the majority of these travelers typically head to less-developed nations for their procedures. Most medical tourists are motivated by cheaper rates – sometimes up to 88 percent less than the same procedure in the U.S. Others report wanting a provider who is of their same culture or nationality. Still, others opt to travel to be able to access treatments not available or are prohibited in the U.S.
Although cheap surgery is an attractive lure, patients may find that their procedure ends up costing them more in the long run. Plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Peterson, M.D., of Topeka, Kansas, explains, “If a procedure is poorly done or if the patient is unhappy with their results, there is a cost associated with trying to correct the problem.” If complications, like infection, arise after the surgery is completed, there are also additional costs associated with treating those problems.
In 2013, 21 Americans from six states learned how costly complications could be after they traveled to a Dominican Republican clinic for plastic surgeries including tummy tucks and breast implants. All 21 patients contracted infections caused by mycobacteria, a family of bacteria that cause a range of illness including tuberculosis and leprosy. These infections are hard to treat with antibiotics, cause scarring and in some cases may require surgery. Many times patients contracting infections as a result of a surgical procedure done in another country are exposed to bacteria not found in the U.S. This can make treatment extremely difficult.
CDC research on medical tourism also shows that many medical tourists do not thoroughly research the facility where they will have their procedures, and frequently essentially rely on online search engines to locate providers. This makes it hard for patients to be sure that what they see is actually what they are getting. In the U.S., licensed plastic surgeons have completed medical school, undergo additional surgical and clinical training, must be certified by the American Board of Surgery and maintain their license and credentials through continuing education. Doctors can also be vetted through national organizations like the ASPS. Not every country holds their plastic surgeons to these standards, and as a result, patients may receive treatment from providers who have not been thoroughly trained and may not even be licensed to perform those procedures. Foreign hospital and surgery center standards may also greatly vary from U.S. protocols for surgery and infection prevention.
In addition to recovery and health concerns, there are logistic considerations to make when considering traveling for plastic surgery. All plastic surgery procedures require follow-up care to ensure healing is progressing and to minimize complications. Patients who have their procedures done in another country should remain in that country for follow-up care and will need to make arrangements for care during recovery. If they choose to return to the U.S., they will need to find a plastic surgery provider willing to treat them for follow-up care. “Licensed and credentialed plastic surgeons want to see their patients to make sure they are healing properly and are without complications,” says Peterson.”If a physician does not discuss follow-up care plans, that is a red flag and patients should be concerned.”
“These concerns are not just limited to plastic surgery patients traveling overseas,” says Peterson. Patients researching plastic surgery should take the time to thoroughly research any potential surgery provider – whether in the U.S. or abroad – to ensure they are trained and licensed to do plastic surgery. Peterson continues, “Patients should also schedule consultations to discuss the procedure and recovery at length to understand what outcomes can be expected.”
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