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Medical Tourism – Why It’s Not a Good Idea

Medical tourism has grown dramatically in the last decade. Simply put, a medical tourist is someone who seeks medical care outside of their country of origin. Several websites and agencies advertise services that include helping a patient find a country and physician to perform their desired procedure in another country.

In 2020, more than 1% of all plastic surgery patients were leaving Canada to have their cosmetic procedures performed in other countries. But before you book a flight and grab your passport, it’s essential to understand that traveling abroad for a cosmetic procedure may not be the solution you are looking for.

Table of Contents

Why is Medical Tourism on The Rise?

Lower Cost

A Luxury Experience

Getting Around the Rules

What Are The Most Popular Countries For Plastic Surgeries?

What Are The Risks of Medical Tourism?

Why is Medical Tourism on The Rise?

There are a number of reasons medical tourism is on the rise. Even in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, patients still seek medical care and procedures outside of their country in record numbers. Patients are turning to medical treatment abroad due to long wait times, costs of procedures, or surgeries or treatments that may otherwise be unavailable or illegal in Canada.

Lower Cost

When it comes to pursuing plastic surgery outside of Canada, many patients are drawn in by the lower prices and the idea of a cheaper cosmetic procedure. For example, consider that a breast augmentation ranges from $8000 to $10000 in Toronto compared to $1800 USD in Brazil and $2600 USD in Thailand, and it’s easy to see what the allure of traveling for surgery is so high.

It is estimated that a medical tourist can save anywhere from 25% – 90% on medical expenses as a result of medical tourism, depending on the surgery and country.

A Luxury Experience

Because medical tourism has evolved into a lucrative business for many countries, it is often advertised as a vacation or spa getaway. In addition, some medical facilities in foreign countries promise one-on-one care, large hotel-suite-like hospital rooms, as well as the added benefit of privacy.

For many of medical tourists, the idea of going on “vacation” and returning home without anyone knowing about their surgery is part of the draw of surgery abroad.

Getting Around the Rules

Another factor that makes medical tourism so popular is being able to obtain a procedure that may not be “allowed” in your country. After a consultation with your surgeon, you may discover that they don’t feel you are a good candidate.

For example, you may not be at a weight deemed necessary for a weight loss surgery by your doctor in Canada but find that a surgeon in Brazil or Mexico will be happy to take on your case.

According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), “the top 10 countries for cosmetic surgery in 2019 were USA, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Turkey, France, India, and Russia.” Thailand, Mexico, and Turkey see the most foreign patients seeking these elective procedures.

The most popular surgeries for medical tourism are breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, liposuction, facelifts, and eyelid surgeries. However, one of the newest, most popular surgeries is the Brazilian Butt Lift, which also ranks among the most deadly.

The Fraser Institute studies the phenomenon of medical tourism in Canada and reports on the statistics and contributing factors annually. While there is no concrete way to document the exact number of Canadians leaving the country to pursue medical care, in 2016, it was estimated that more than 65,000 Canadians sought medical treatment abroad.

Another study shows that almost 20% of Canadians would be willing to travel outside of the country for an elective procedure even if it meant that they would have to cover 100% of all the expenses. However, in many cases, the risks involved in receiving plastic surgery abroad are tremendous and outweigh any possible benefits.

What Are The Risks of Medical Tourism?

Traveling abroad for any medical procedure carries a high level of risk. However, cosmetic surgeries are one of the more concerning types of procedures done in foreign countries. So, while on the surface, finding a cheaper option for your weight loss surgery, breast augmentation, or even cosmetic dentistry may seem like a good idea, there are many reasons to stay home and find a Board-Certified surgeon in your area.

Many women and men have shared their stories about botched plastic surgeries and infections after returning home. What’s worse is that once your surgery is completed, there is often no recourse or record of care available for these patients.

Some of the health risks presented by the Canadian government include:

  1. Varying levels of hospital accreditation requirements: It is never safe to assume that hospitals and medical facilities worldwide are held to the same standard. This includes the licensing and education of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other medical staff.
  1. Antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections: In 2019, at least 30 Canadians were put at risk of a deadly bacterial infection after having their surgeries in a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. These types of bacteria are a global problem, and receiving treatment in a country with lower infection control standards can put you at risk,
  1. Drug regulations are not as stringent outside Canada: Due to the overwhelming difference in prescription drug regulation, it is not uncommon to receive medication that may be unsafe, expired, or even counterfeit when receiving treatments in other countries.
  1. Language barriers: Not speaking the language of the country you are receiving surgery in can result in miscommunication and a lack of understanding of your medical care. In addition, you may also be pressured into receiving the care you may not want or need without fully being able to consent.
  1. Flying poses risks to recovery: Air travel can put you at an increased risk of blood clotting after surgery. Plastic surgeries require particular recovery plans for your body to heal correctly and avoid life-threatening conditions such as a pulmonary embolism or deep vein thrombosis.

In addition to these health risks, it is also important to consider that you may experience an unexpected illness while traveling abroad. This can happen for several reasons. Whether it is adjusting to the food or being exposed to an illness or bacteria that are foreign to your body, receiving treatment in another country puts you at risk for being in less-than-optimal health.

There are also financial risks to consider when it comes to medical tourism. Most travel insurance companies have exceptions when traveling for medical treatment. In addition, you may not be covered by your health plan to receive care for complications that may arise from a surgery performed outside of the country.

Simon Fraser University sites “psycho-emotional stress” as another cause of concern for Canadians traveling abroad for medical care. Not to mention the recovery, post-operative care that is not available for medical tourists.

Removing stitches and inspection of your incision sites are all a part of your post-op recovery period. These follow-up appointments should be made prior to returning home, but in many cases, they cannot be and can carry their own list of health and safety risks. Scar revision is a common request of patients following a procedure abroad. This is due to improper healing caused by the stress put on the surgical site while traveling home, poor post-op care, or doctor error.

Deciding to weigh your options for cosmetic surgery is not a bad idea in and of itself. However, elective procedures can be expensive, or you may find that your surgeon hasn’t given you the opinion you were hoping for.

However, saving yourself money or gaining access to a procedure against a Board-Certified doctor’s advice can come at a devastating price. If you are looking for ways to have your plastic surgery, several financing options are available now that can help you make your cosmetic surgery goals a reality. In addition, be sure to meet with multiple surgeons to discuss how they might recommend you becoming a better candidate for your procedure.

Like so many things, if it sounds too good to be true, it often is. And medical tourism is far more complicated and nuanced than simply accessing affordable cosmetic surgery.