Medical Tourism: Traveling for Plastic Surgery

A Boston surgeon tells us why traveling for plastic surgery may not be the best idea.

medical tourismIs the risk worth the reward? Photo via Shutterstock

One morning, a new patient, K.E., walked into my office thinking that her silicone breast implant had ruptured. She had her breast surgery in another country in order to save on the cost of having a procedure done here in the U.S. Once in the operating room for the removal of the presumed ruptured implant, an unexpected discovery was made. Instead of the usual scar and gel material that would normally surround a ruptured implant, a large cloth was in her breast next to the implant, and that was ultimately the reason she was experiencing discomfort following her surgery overseas.

It’s been said that medical tourism dates back to Ancient Greece when pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean traveled to Epidauria in the Saronic Gulf seeking aid from the healing god Asklepios. “Medical tourism” is now defined by the Medical Tourism Association as the practice by which people from one country seek greater or equal medical care in another part of the world in an attempt to bypass higher medical costs (with a cost savings of up to 90 percent).

For example, the average cost of a tummy-tuck, or abdominoplasty, in the U.S. is $9,750. In South America, the cost is $3,500. Here in the Boston area, the price ranges from $7,660 to $16,400.

The United States has traditionally been a destination for medical tourism, particularly for patients searching for the latest in cutting-edge medical expertise and technology. A McKinsey and Co. report found that 60,000 to 85,000 medical tourists traveled to the United States in 2008 for medical procedures. But, an estimated 750,000 American medical tourists traveled from the United States to other countries looking for lower cost Western-accredited medical facilities, which was an increase of 250,000 from the previous year. There are a few reasons for this, but one standout is that certain procedures not yet approved in the U.S. by the FDA may be offered elsewhere. A report by Deloitte Consulting projected that medical tourism from the United States would increase tenfold over the next decade.

Medical tourism may carry risk. For example, the quality of care following surgery can vary significantly. Also, different countries have other infectious diseases and exposure to these infections without having built up natural immunity can be dangerous, especially for individuals with weaker immune systems. Plus, traveling long distances following surgery can raise the incidence of complications, and long flights can cause blood clots that travel to the lungs and are potentially fatal.

In the end, the cloth was removed from K.E. and she was able to keep her breast implant. Luckily, she went on to heal well.

—Samuel J. Lin, MD


Dr. Samuel Lin is an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and a plastic surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is also the site director at BIDMC for the Harvard Plastic Surgery Residency Training Program.