Medical Tourism Complications

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Cosmetic Surgery Medical Tourism Complications

In our Asian Plastic Surgery Guide Predictions for 2011, we forecasted an increase in self-serving "warnings" from American cosmetic surgeons worried about the exodus of cash-paying patients to other countries. Sure enough, such articles, many of them simply "holier-than-thou" press releases, have grown increasingly common over the year, and hardly a week goes by without some new or struggling young (or even experienced) doctor marketing another "public service announcement" expounding on the dangers of traveling for cosmetic care.

Now, or so it seems, even the big names are joining the fray. The Aesthetic Surgery Journal, the official mouthpiece of The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, an organization comprised of board-certified American and Canadian plastic surgeons, has published a new report, which is summarized in a press release on the ASAPS website under the attention-grabbing title of "A One-Way Ticket to Surgical Complications."

cosmetic medical tourism
The study surveyed American plastic surgeons about their experiences in treating medical tourism patients with complications following cosmetic surgery performed in other countries. Just over 52 percent of respondents reported an increasing trend over the last five years in the number of returning medical tourists they see with complications.

APSG Comment: No surprise here. After all, the number of American patients traveling for plastic surgery has exploded over the last five years and continues to escalate.

And by the way, the number of plastic surgeons in Asia now mentioning the need to correct poor results following cosmetic surgery performed in the West has been increasing just as fast if not faster.

Back to the study. "These [traveling] patients may not be well informed about the importance of outcomes and the risk of complications," note the authors. "[American] plastic surgeons can help amend this by educating their patients on the potential pitfalls of cosmetic surgery tourism."

APSG Comment: The authors present no evidence to support this claim. Plus, not all American plastic surgeons are exactly great communicators, even in their own practices.

The most common complications experienced by returning patients included infection, blood build-up, poor wound healing, and contour abnormalities.

APSG Comment: Which just happens to be the very problems that can complicate any and all cosmetic surgery performed in any and all countries by any and all top surgeons.

The authors warned that payment to correct these problems was not always covered by medical insurance.

APSG Comment: Nor would these postoperative problems be covered if the original surgery was performed in the United States. Essentially all American medical insurance companies exclude costs to treat complications arising from elective cosmetic surgery, whether performed in New York City or Transylvania.

The journal's editor notes that "this survey clearly shows the dangers of medical tourism."

APSG Comment: Wrong. It shows only that all plastic surgery has known risks and that complications really do sometimes ensue.

The editor recommends that American plastic surgeons who encounter patients considering medical travel abroad offer up a copy of ASAPS guidelines on this subject to "serve as a starting point for a conversation in which the patients understand that plastic surgery tourism is not as simple as he or she might have thought and drop the notion of seeking care abroad."

APSG Comment: Read the guidelines. They do indeed offer up some sound advice, although not just for travelers but really anyone contemplating having cosmetic surgery anywhere. After you're finished, ask yourself whether you have ever performed all of this due diligence on even a single doctor you've ever visited anywhere, whether at home or abroad? Our guess is that people traveling abroad are more cautious about such matters than locals simply using the yellow pages.

The ASAPS might do better to reveal to us which of their member surgeons are perfect. There are plenty of "board certified" cosmetic surgeons practicing in the United States, but which ones have never had a patient experience a complication like infection or bleeding?

But, of course, there are no perfect doctors, let alone countries with only perfect doctors. As in all other professions, every country's certified plastic surgeons range widely in competence, from exceptionally good to exceptionally bad with most clustered around the middle. While seeking cosmetic surgery from a random surgeon in third-world country makes no sense, considering a prominent surgeon in a highly developed region of East or Southeast Asia is a very different proposition.

Within the medical profession, "turf wars" between competing cosmetic specialties and their societies have recently grown more aggressive. Now the list of "enemies" seems to have expanded to encompass medically-sophisticated specialists who just happen to practice outside of American borders.

Unfortunately, a jingoistic assumption of American superiority pervades this press release, which seems more intended to discourage than educate. That's our take; you form your own opinion.

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Medical tourism and surgery complications