Medical Tourism Part 2: Going Overseas for Cosmetic Surgery

Combine your surgery with a vacation

In the first article of this series, I introduced the concept of medical tourism and went on to discuss the subset of dental tourism. In this article, I will focus on aesthetic tourism, highlighting the major travel destinations in the world that offer plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures, and also addressing concerns and precautions involved with aesthetic tourism.

Introduction to Aesthetic Tourism

Dental tourism and aesthetic tourism are closely related in several ways. Some dental procedures, such as teeth whitening and cosmetic repairs, are purely aesthetic in nature. Because dentistry is poorly covered by medical insurance policies and public health care systems in the United States, Canada, and the UK (despite the fact that oral health is integral to overall health!), it is treated more like an elective procedure, as are aesthetic enhancement procedures. And like the dentists in affluent countries such as the US and Austria who moved their clinics just across their nations’ borders to lower their costs of operation, plastic surgeons followed suit and set up their clinics for the same reasons in many of the same near-the-border locations.

But aesthetic tourism has expanded enormously, taking term “medical tourism” much farther than dentistry ever could by enticing patients with all-inclusive cosmetic vacation packages that are a primary reason for travel rather than an extra added benefit of an affordable tourist destination. People are willing to travel farther for the opportunity to have plastic surgery and other enhancement procedures performed as part of a vacation experience. And whereas dental tourism is all about cost savings, aesthetic tourism may also be motivated by such things as procedures and products that are not available at home, privacy issues, and glamour appeal.

The term “plastic surgery” does not refer to the synthetic polymers that are so ubiquitous in modern society, but rather to the concept of molding and sculpting. You may have heard of the term “plastic arts,” which refers the visual arts, or arts that manipulate mediums such as plaster and paint, as opposed to the arts of music and literature.

There are plastic surgery procedures to be performed on just about every part of the body: the abdomen, breasts, face, forehead, nose, eyelids, eyebrows, ears, neck, upper arms, thighs, etc; implants and fillers may be inserted for contouring, body fat is removed and perhaps replaced elsewhere; sutures are used to firm and lift; toxins, lasers, and chemicals smooth over wrinkles and blemishes.

Hair removal/restoration, cosmetic tattoos, and scar removal are among other aesthetic procedures on offer, while Lasik vision correction, many dental procedures, and bariatric surgery, for weight loss, are examples of elective procedures that go far beyond aesthetic value.

Risks and Precautions

All surgery, regardless of how minor it may seem, carries a risk of the development of blood clots and/or pulmonary embolism, risks that are minor, yet they can be fatal. Swelling and infection are more common complications of surgery. For these reasons, planning a cosmetic surgery vacation should be done with the utmost of care.

  • Research the surgical procedure itself, its pluses and minuses, and be sure to schedule yourself plenty of postoperative rest and recovery time before traveling or engaging in vacation activities.
  • Find out about the clinic, its accreditation, its surgical infrastructure, and the accessibility of intensive care units in case of an emergency.
  • Research the general state of health and medical facilities of the country you will be visiting. The US Department of State travel website has an assessment for every country, along with other useful travel information.
  • Ask if the doctor is board certified and by what board(s), being sure to learn what their standards of certification are. Seek a doctor who is a member of a professional organization such as the International Society for Aesthetic and Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), or an association in the foreign country. Also, by finding out if the doctor has operating privileges in an accredited hospital for the procedure you would like to have performed, you will receive another layer of confidence in their training and competency in that specific procedure.
  • Get patient referrals and verify any claims made by the doctor or clinic.
  • Make sure that English will be spoken or a translator will be available, so that there are no misunderstandings in communicating your needs or understanding important instructions.
  • Visit a travel medicine clinic 4-6 weeks before your trip, so that any vaccinations or medications such as anti-malaria drugs that you may need will have time to take effect. Letting the doctors that you see regularly know about your plans is always recommended for travel abroad, but this is especially important in planning for surgery or other treatments, particularly if you have a medical condition.
  • Do not fall for gimmicks such as discounts linked to deadlines! This kind of advertising is highly unethical for cosmetic surgery. As the former President of the British of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, Adam Searle, recently stated in his condemnation of such an advertising campaign by Groupon, “Any patient making irreversible decisions in circumstances of hype, excitement and emotion, are putting themselves at very great risk. Any normal patient – doctor relationship is completely abandoned in any such framework of medical care.”

All of these precautions will not completely erase the inherent risks involved in the surgery itself, but they will minimize those risks and maximize the probability of a successful outcome. The important point is to not take plastic surgery tourism lightly, as the advertising for “rejuvenating vacations” often emphasizes the fun and sun, the pampering, the exotic locations, the shopping, and the great prices more than the medical aspects involved. But the well-informed patient who does their homework, looks at quality as well as cost, and plans appropriately can have their nip and tuck and enjoy it too, arriving home with a new look and a positive vacation experience.

Destinations

While the Brazilian Wax is a familiar term to lovers of the bikini, the Brazilians are also famed for their expertise and innovation in the art of body sculpting. Brazil has been a plastic surgery tourism center for longer than the term “medical tourism” has been around, with the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgeons requiring all such surgery to be conducted by its members in accredited hospitals. São Paulo’s Albert Einstein Hospital was the first facility outside of the US to be accredited by the Joint Commission International, an international accreditation service based in the United States, and all hospitals in the country are regularly inspected by the National Agency for Sanitary Surveillance to ensure an aseptic environment and that sterilized equipment are in use. São Paulo remains the Western Hemisphere’s unchallenged capital of tummy tucks, buttocks enhancement, and breast augmentation, and Brazil’s aesthetic tourism infrastructure has matured as international trends have been set, featuring some of the world’s most respected plastic surgeons, operating in some of the world’s best hospitals, offering language assistance and comfortable in-hospital accommodations – all this, with the world’s finest beach resorts nearby.

Buenos Aires, Argentina is the other South American leader in the aesthetic tourism trade. Argentina has made public health care a national priority from its very beginnings and has been responsible for many medical advances. So when the Argentine peso was devalued in 2002, Buenos Aires became an attractive destination for medical treatment for foreigners, and plastic surgeons and dentists were quick to see the benefits of creating a regional aesthetic tourism hub in this vibrant city.

The death of the beautiful model, Solange Magnano, at the age of 38 of a pulmonary embolism after cosmetic surgery on her buttocks in Buenos Aires should serve as a vivid reminder of the risks involved in any kind of surgery in any location in the world, as well as of the importance of not cutting corners. Her doctors had used a lower-cost filler that was not well established for the kind of procedure she underwent, thus raising her risk factor and resulting in the tragic outcome where two eight-year-old twins were left motherless.

Farther north, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama have developed their aesthetic tourism industries in a similar way to their dental, where the “get a beach vacation and a new look” marketing to North Americans – combined with short flight times, excellent reputations, and great cost benefits – has been very successful.

Plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures are highly sought-after in Mexican resorts such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta as well as in locations with large, well-established expat communities such as Guadalajara and San Miguel de Allende. Mexico offers the lowest costs in terms of travel and services along with high quality medical and personal treatment, often combined with an all-inclusive beach vacation for a relaxing recovery.

One specialty that has grown in popularity in Mexico is bariatric surgery for weight loss, which involves procedures that are considered to be elective and are usually not covered by insurance in the US. The most cost savings can be had at bariatric surgery clinics that cater to US citizens in cities near the border, such as Tijuana, Ensenada, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo, and Monterrey, although the procedures are also offered at many other plastic surgery facilities throughout the country.

Costa Rica is world renowned for its excellent healthcare system. This, plus reduced prices and equally world-renowned eco-tourism opportunities, represents the best that aesthetic tourism has to offer. Clinics in San Jose are at the cutting edge of both medical technology and the modern medical tourism practices that have built the country’s reputation for providing an excellent aesthetic vacation experience.

The US involvement in the Panama Canal has meant that Panama City’s medical establishment has been treating US citizens with US-trained doctors in facilities that meet US standards for some hundred years, now. Known as “the Crossroads of the Americas,” Panama City is a major financial and travel hub, making it another excellent aesthetic vacation destination for people from the US and Canada.

Two other countries in the Americas that stand out for their excellent reputations are Colombia, which has long been a leading center for medical research and innovation, and Cuba, with its world-renowned doctors and medical expertise. But as in all of the world’s major medical tourism destinations, plastic surgery is just one among many specialties on offer, and with their impressive medical infrastructures, they are considered to be much more than “aesthetic tourism destinations.” Such medical specialty supercenters will be the topic of the next article in this series.

I should also address the Dominical Republic. It was an early entrant into the “lipo-tourism” business and remains a popular low-cost aesthetic tourism destination, despite what the US State Department has to say in the “Medical Facilities and Health Information” section of its travel page on this country. Its characterization of the medical facilities is not confidence inspiring. Even more telling is the inclusion of a section on cosmetic surgery amongst the topics of dengue, malaria, and sexually transmitted diseases that points to the CDC’s report on patients who suffered from postoperative infections after undergoing cosmetic surgery in the Dominican Republic back in 2003 – 2004. Yes, it is very close to the US; yes, it is very inexpensive; and yes, many people have had excellent experiences with cosmetic surgery there. However, the risk factors are much higher than in other more reputable aesthetic tourism destinations, due to infrastructure short fallings that are beyond any single doctor’s control.

Jamaica’s Half Moon Bay, on the other hand, is a reputable upscale cosmetic vacation paradise for the well healed who demand nothing less than pampering, privacy, and personal perfection.

In Europe, one could say that Hungary has played the part for Western Europeans that Mexico has played for North Americans, with dental tourism having led the way in making this centrally located country the region’s most well established aesthetic tourism destination. While dental tourism is concentrated at Hungary’s border with Austria, Budapest is the place to find the best private clinics specializing in cosmetic procedures.

Aesthetic tourism centers have sprung up in recent years in EU member nations of Eastern Europe, and in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, as these countries are able to offer lower cost treatments to Western Europeans while being held to a common medical standard.

For those who desire a more exotic experience, particularly for the Irish and the British, Turkey has in recent years developed into a popular low-cost, all-inclusive aesthetic surgery vacation destination.

And for those who want to really get away, South Africa was one of the original aesthetic tourism pioneers, offering “surgical renewal” that comes with your choice of a “rejuvenation holiday,” be it a bush safari, a tour of the country, a visit to the coast, a stay at a golf or a wine estate, or a train journey. These options are for the jet set, rather than for those looking to save a substantial amount of money.

Aesthetic tourism has become a more and more widespread phenomenon, with countries throughout the world setting themselves up as the new location in which to find the new you. Combining the expertise of a variety of arenas, from the hospitality industry to medical tourism organizations to marketing, the globalization of cosmetic travel is expanding to countries from El Salvador and Bolivia to South Korea and Taiwan and beyond.

According to an ISAPS News survey about plastic surgery tourism, establishing credibility by making sure that information about safe facilities and doctors is available through accreditation processes and the cataloging of complaints about unethical doctors and bad outcomes is vital to this expansion. So be sure to take advantage of all the information available from different sources to help guide you to the best location, the best doctor, and the best experience for your new you.

Resources:

US Department of State Website on International Travel

International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery – Medical Tourism

Be sure to visit Escape Artist Medical Tourism for lots more information on overseas healthcare and expat health.

About the Author: Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). Julie presently lives in the sunny wine country of Argentina, where she and husband, Jamie, edit Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.

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3 Comments

  1. Holly Farr-Carnelle August 17, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Has Asia fallen off the map? Thailand and the Philippines, for example.

  2. Bettina Morosow August 31, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Oh my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thank you Nonetheless I am experiencing situation with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting equivalent rss drawback? Anybody who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

  3. Mark January 10, 2012 at 8:16 am

    I looked into minor surgery in Costa Rica, and after airfare, hotel, hospital cost (with high gringo fee$) it was much cheaper to drive 2 hours to Orlando for this outpatient procedure. It seems, if you have to pay out of pocket, it’s the bigger operation where you can save some money.

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