Patient Safety > Cosmetic Surgery Tourism

COSMETIC SURGERY TOURISM – PATIENT INFORMATION

Travelling abroad for a cosmetic surgery operation is becoming increasingly popular due to cheaper flights and extensive advertising by clinics overseas.

Guide Sections

1. Introduction

While “cosmetic surgery tourism” is a success for some people, there are a number of things that need to be considered when deciding if it is the right thing for you.
We have included some of the common issues that we are asked about so that you can reach an informed decision about going abroad for your cosmetic surgery.

2. Am I more likely to have a complication if I travel abroad for my cosmetic surgery?

No procedure is free from risk and complications after cosmetic surgery can occur whether your surgery is carried out in Australia or abroad. However, if you choose to have a surgical cosmetic procedure in Australia, the surgeon who performed the surgery will provide you with any necessary aftercare. If something does go wrong, either a complication arises or the outcome of the procedure is unfavourable, your surgeon is on hand to discuss it with you and decide how the problem can best be resolved.

This reassurance is not always provided when travelling abroad to have cosmetic surgery. Some clinics overseas will not have someone in Australia for you to turn to if problems arise and for many of those that do, it is a nurse or GP, not a trained specialist. Any potential cost savings that might arise from travelling abroad should be balanced against this and other considerations such as the need to take time off work and the cost of returning to the overseas clinic for corrections. At ASAPS, we believe that patients should be able to see the plastic surgeon that actually carried out the operation if there are any concerns.

3. Are there any special risks of travelling for cosmetic surgery abroad?

Both air travel and major surgery increase the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism. Flying soon before or after an operation abroad combines these risks, particularly if your flight is a long one.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein partially or completely blocking blood flow. It usually occurs in a deep leg vein and can cause immobility and long-term problems with circulation. The symptoms usually entail; swelling, pain, warm skin, tenderness and redness. Your risk of getting DVT is also increased if you are; obese, a smoker, over 40, have cancer or a heart condition, are taking HRT or the combined contraceptive pill or have a prolonged anaesthetic or period of immobility.

A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood vessel supplying the lung becomes blocked by a clot. This may travel in the bloodstream from a vein in the pelvis, abdomen or leg. Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include breathlessness, chest pain and potentially fatal collapse. You have an increased risk of a pulmonary embolism if you have a DVT, are elderly, obese, or have cancer or have a prolonged anaesthetic or period of immobility.

Therefore, before flying home, you should wait five to seven days after procedures such as breast surgery and liposuction, and seven to 10 days after facial cosmetic procedures or tummy tuck.

4. Is there anything I can do to reduce the risks of getting a blood clot?

Drinking plenty of water, avoiding alcohol and walking about during your flight can help the circulation but this does not completely remove the risk, especially if you are having major surgery. Blood clots can start to form during your operation. You should ask your surgeon about this before deciding to travel abroad.

5. How do I know that the surgeon is properly trained?

There are some very well trained plastic surgeons outside of Australia but it can be difficult to check. At home, plastic surgeons will be on the specialist register for plastic surgery that is held by the Medical Board of Australia (MBA). Unfortunately, other countries use different systems and because of differences in standards and qualifications it is not easy to determine whether a surgeon overseas is a fully trained plastic surgeon. In Australia, members of ASAPS have all successfully undergone specialist surgical training. You may find there are similar associations abroad where you can check to see if the surgeon is a member. You should always ask a surgeon what training and qualifications they have and what organisations they belong to. No respectable surgeon will mind this in the least!

6. How do I know if the clinic is clean and safe?

In Australia, all private hospitals and clinics are regulated by government health departments, who ensure that the standards of the facilities and care are high and inspected regularly. Other countries do not necessarily have a similar licensing and inspection regime. Patients report that some clinics abroad are clean and of very high standard whilst others are not. You should ask about the regulation of the clinic, its record on infection rates and what back-up services are available on the main clinic site if something were to go wrong during your operation or stay.

7. Why is surgery sometimes cheaper abroad than in Australia?

In Australia, cosmetic surgery is heavily regulated and such regulation is expensive. In addition, plastic surgeons in Australia must maintain extensive medical indemnity insurance. This ensures that you are fully protected and receive the best possible care and treatment. Inevitably, the cost of this reassurance is reflected in the cost of your surgery. Cosmetic surgery is regulated differently in other countries and so standards of care may differ and the cost of regulation may be less.

ASAPS members will provide full aftercare for you following your operation: both during your stay in hospital and after discharge – this includes follow-up consultations and any further treatment that may be required to resolve any concerns. While this aftercare is factored in to the cost of the surgery in Australia, most clinics overseas provide only limited or no aftercare once you return home, which allows them to reduce the cost of surgery. In addition to this, the cost of living is often less than that in Australia and therefore expenses such as staff costs and medical supplies are generally much cheaper.

8. Is cosmetic surgery always better value abroad?

Cosmetic surgery abroad is often cheaper than in Australia, however should there be complications following the initial surgery, returning to see the surgeon could add hundreds or even thousands of dollars, as well as involve significant time away from work. The cost of getting home if medical complications occur could be significant as holiday travel insurance doesn’t usually cover this. The MBS will cover life-threatening complications, but any other problems may have to be covered by you, either by going back to the clinic where you had treatment, or paying for private treatment here in Australia.

Seeing an Australian surgeon allows you the benefit of time and added consultations to build confidence in your surgeon and the procedure before making your decision. If you are travelling abroad for surgery, you will often not see your surgeon or discuss treatment in much detail beforehand. This should be considered when deciding on whether going abroad is actually better value for money.

9. How well can cosmetic surgery be combined with a holiday?

Cosmetic surgery abroad is often labelled as a holiday package. It is ASAPS belief that this is very misleading and creates the wrong impression. Cosmetic surgery is a serious and major undertaking and should not be considered as a “holiday”. Planning to have a holiday after your surgery is unwise since it is unlikely that you will be able to carry out regular holiday activities. To properly heal and reduce the risk of complications, you shouldn’t sunbathe, drink alcohol, swim or do any water sports. After most surgery you will be advised to rest and take gentle light exercise until your wound has healed and stitches have been removed. If you are keen to see the place you are travelling to, you should take the holiday before you have the operation and plan several days of rest afterwards.

10. Will my trip be covered by my normal holiday insurance?

Different policies vary but in general it is unusual for a holiday policy to cover you in the event of something going wrong during or after planned elective surgery for which purpose you had travelled. We would strongly recommend that you make sure that you do have full insurance cover, since the cost of prolonged medical care abroad or of medical evacuation back Australia in the event of something going wrong could be extremely expensive.

11. Can I change my mind if I do not like the look of the place when I get to the clinic?

This is something that you must establish before you enter a contract with the company arranging the surgery abroad. At ASAPS, we believe that patients should never feel compelled for financial reasons to go ahead with cosmetic surgery if they change their mind. There are real risks of feeling unable to back out if you have travelled a long way and are in a foreign country using an unfamiliar language.

12. If something goes wrong, will I be covered for care when I get home?

The Medicare Benefits Scheme will cover you in the event of a life-threatening emergency, such as bleeding or blood poisoning, however, it will usually refuse treatment for less serious complications or bad outcomes following cosmetic surgery in Australia or abroad. At ASAPS we have noticed an increasing number of patients turning to the Australian health system with problems following cosmetic surgery abroad: this is not fair on other patients who need care and often ends up with the patient being treated as a “private” patient by the hospital and therefore receiving a private bill.

13. Cosmetic surgery abroad checklist

If you are considering going abroad to have cosmetic surgery, make sure you do your research and find out the answer to these questions:

About your surgeon and your treatment

  • What is the surgeons experience in cosmetic surgery?

– How many years has he or she been practising?
– How many procedures of the kind you are interested in have they undertaken?
– Are they properly qualified and to what professional organisations do they belong to?
– Can you have at least one consultation with the person who will actually be caring out the procedure before you commit to surgery?
– Does your prospective surgeon speak English well enough to communicate issues related to your surgery?

  • What are the clinics credentials?

– Ask if you can speak to patients they’ve treated before
– Ask to view before and after photographs of other patients’ surgeries
– What facilities do they have and what back up do they have if something goes wrong?
– Is there always a doctor in the clinic and is there a high dependency or intensive care unit?

  • What complications or risks are there associated with the surgery you wish to have?
  • What are the complication rates for this procedure?
  • Once you have had your surgery, what are the arrangements for follow-up care with the surgeon?
  • Who is part of the surgical team?
  • Who will address any complications that may arise once you have returned to Australia? Would you have to pay to return to the clinic for further advice or treatment?

Regulation and insurance

  • Is there a body that regulates the clinic or practice to ensure that it meets minimum standards of care and treatment?
  • Will you be covered by travel insurance for such a trip, which includes an operation?
  • What medical insurance arrangements are there if an error occurs?

And finally, always check the fine print to be clear about what you are paying for as there could be hidden costs.