Medical Tourism: Pros and Cons of Having Cosmetic Surgery Abroad


Beth Longware Duff, Medical Editor

Beth Longware Duff is an experienced writer and reporter whose work on a wide variety of topics has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines. Her health and medical writing credits include nationally distributed videos for the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, and she is the recipient of numerous awards including an American Cancer Society Media Award and a New England Press Association Award for Health Reporting. She holds a degree in Communications from Ithaca College.

November 19 2008

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Cosmetic Surgery Abroad: Pros and Cons

It's curious how two very different activities – vacationing and cosmetic surgery – have become intertwined and marketed as a new experience for the adventuresome. Going by a variety of appealing names – Cosmetic Vacations, Med Journeys, Surgeon and Safari, and even The Health Escape – cosmetic surgery tourism has captured the imagination of people who are looking to combine a little
R & R with a little nip & tuck.

Before you rush out to book your own plastic surgery foreign experience, however, there are some considerations that need to be addressed. We break them down as pros and cons.

The pros of cosmetic surgery abroad:

  • The exotic destinations vying for your money are seemingly endless.
    Among the most popular are Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, South Africa, and Thailand. Whatever your fantasy vacation, you can probably combine it with the plastic surgery procedures of your choice in the locale of your dreams.
  • Price (or, How low can it go?)
    Elective cosmetic surgery procedures are not covered by medical insurance, so price is always a factor; in cosmetic surgery tourism, it is often the major selling point. It's not unusual for entire vacation/surgical packages abroad to cost less than individual procedures in the United States, with advertised savings ranging from 50% to 90%.
  • Cosmetic surgery tourism can offer options not available at home.
    Some countries, including the United States, heavily regulate or ban certain elective procedures and products. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the sale of highly cohesive "gummy bear" silicone breast implants in the United States as yet, although they are available from doctors participating in clinical trials. By traveling to another country, some people hope to benefit from procedures or products that are not currently available or lack FDA approval.
  • Waiting for surgery is not an issue.
    Many popular medical tourism surgery destinations actively recruit patients from abroad by offering no wait times and a standard of care that's best described as pampering. One luxury medical facility – Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand – reportedly treated 55,000 patients from the United States alone in 2005.
  • It's fun!
    The scenario that dominates ads for cosmetic surgery vacations usually involves some variation on the theme of fun in the sun/island drinks/exotic food/sports activities/tourist attractions/international shopping. The medical aspects of the adventure aren't always covered as thoroughly as one might like – but how bad could that be?

And that brings us to . . .

The cons of cosmetic surgery abroad:

  • Travel + Surgery = Significant increase in risk of complications
    Travel and surgery have something in common – the potential risk of developing pulmonary embolism and blood clots during both. Combining the two, as cosmetic surgery tourism does, increases the risk of developing these potentially fatal complications. Add swelling and infection (two common complications of any surgery), and the experience of a lifetime could turn into a nightmare. Later complications may be costly. Normally, follow-up visits after surgery are covered by the fee for the surgery, but you will not be seeing that surgeon once you get home
  • Bargain surgery may end up costing more than you bargained for.
    If something goes wrong with your surgery, you may rack up additional expenses for the treatment of complications or revision surgeries. These costs could add up to more than the cost of the initial operation if it had been performed back home.
  • Procedures, devices, and products may not meet U.S. standards.
    FDA standards and U.S. law do not transcend international borders. Cosmetic surgery procedures, devices and products used abroad, including implants and fillers, may not have been tested or proven safe and effective, or the prevailing standards in that country may not be as high as in the U.S. One example is breast implants filled with soybean oil, which were used abroad for a few years and then found to have problems.
  • The qualifications of surgeons and facilities may not be verifiable.
    Properly trained and qualified surgeons, anesthesia, modern equipment, sterile techniques – these are all major factors in successful cosmetic surgery. Unlike the United States, some countries do not maintain formal medical accreditation boards to certify physicians and medical facilities. Some facilities may be privately owned, making verification of medical credentials difficult or impossible. Again, U.S. laws do not protect American citizens outside the country. If negligence occurs, the patient may have no legal recourse.
  • Vacation activities may compromise a patient's health.
    Recovery and vacation do not mix – and would you really want to try? For proper healing to occur without complications, patients should be committed to following strict guidelines established by their surgeon. Sunbathing, swimming and other water activities, hiking, extensive touring, and imbibing alcohol are not conducive to optimal healing. When is a vacation not a vacation? When you're healing from major surgery.

Before considering cosmetic surgery in a foreign country, do your homework. Research the procedure, its benefits, risks, and related complications. Know all the costs, the expected recovery time, and when you can safety travel home before you commit to surgery. Ask lots of questions, and request referrals to former patients

Thoroughly check out the clinic, the surgeons and medical personnel who work there, and the certification requirements that are in effect. Board certification is the bare minimum when it comes to plastic surgeons, but be aware that the requirements for board certification abroad—if a medical specialty board exists in the country you are traveling to—may not be as stringent as they are in the United States. Preferably, your surgeon should be certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery.

In addition to proper certification, find out if the surgeon is a member of one of the top professional organizations for plastic surgeons: the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) or the International Society of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgery (ISAPS).

Cosmetic surgery is major surgery, so make all your decisions as an informed consumer.