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The Reality of Medical Tourism

July 17th, 2011 Miguel A. Delgado Jr, MD

Medical tourism dates back thousands of years.  Greek pilgrims traveled to the Sacronic Gulf to a territory called Epidauria, considered the first medical tourist destination, for medical treatments and mineral waters for healing not unlike our spas today. Medical tourism seems to be gaining resurgence with elective surgeries. The lure of a tropical vacation package in a far off land which combines the cosmetic procedure of your choice with sunshine, beaches, rest and relaxation away from family, friends and home at a reasonable cost is a tempting proposition to some San Francisco Bay Area patients. There are many countries that are marketing themselves as medical tourist destinations, including; Thailand, India, Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, South Korea and more.
There are some very important things to consider that may not seem apparent at first look. Language and cultural barriers make communicating with doctors and nurses frustrating. Doctors in some countries are regarded as authority figures who often are not questioned. Many countries have infectious diseases that Americans and Europeans would not have built up a natural immunity to such as mosquito transmitted diseases, influenza and tuberculosis. Standards of post operative care can vary dramatically depending on the hospital and the country. Accreditation and other measures of quality vary widely across the globe.  Traveling a long distance after surgery can be dangerous for possible blood clots in the legs.
Many countries and doctors have lower fees because they do not have protection for patients such as liability insurance. Or they may be using inferior products for such popular surgeries as breast augmentation or breast augmentation with a lift. French made silicone P.I.P. breast implants have a high rupture rate and were eventually recalled. Consultant plastic surgeon Douglas McGeorge of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) said PIP implants were not used by members of the Association. He said “These are cheap products that tend to be used by commercial companies and could well be used in women who have gone abroad for surgery. They are attracted by cut-price deals but as ever, you get what you pay for”. The recalled implants resurfaced and were rebranded as M-implants putting even more women at risk. This would not be the case in the United States where implants are closely monitored by the FDA for safety.

If you should be awarded a mal practice suit by a court, the doctor or hospital may not have insurance and collecting may be impossible. If a medical complication should arise, your personal medical insurance will probably not cover you while you are out of the country so additional costs could result. If you have a complication once you return home you then either have to return to the foreign country or find a local doctor willing to take on a case with complications which can be very expensive.

Relaxing on the beach to recover is not a good option, it is important to stay out of the sun and the water to avoid scarring and infection. Being close to home where you may have a friend or family member to watch out for you is optimal. And most importantly having your surgeon nearby is the safest situation. After healing is a good time to plan and enjoy a trip to a far off destination.