The risks of going abroad for plastic surgery
- There has been an increase in cosmetic surgery consumers going abroad for plastic surgery.
- Risks of plastic surgery abroad include the possibility of lower standards in medical facilities and surgeons.
- Those seeking plastic surgery should do plenty of research beforehand.
There’s a growing trend among cosmetic surgery consumers who elect to not only go out of state to have their tummy tucks and face-lifts done, but get out of the country to do so.
According to data from RealSelf.com and its Cosmetic Treatment Travel Report, out of 1.7 million people surveyed, 45% traveled out of their home state for treatments and procedures, with many traveling thousands of miles away.
“We have seen an exponential increase in people traveling abroad to get their plastic surgery,” says Will Hatton, professional backpacker and founder of HotelJules.com, an international travel review website. “Really, it comes down to the three big factors — pride, privacy, and price.”
Here’s how Hatton breaks the three factors down:
Pride. Plastic surgery can be seen as an admission of inferiority. “Having it outside of the country can prevent your inner circle of family and friends knowing about it — providing it is a subtle change,” he says. “For more drastic changes, the neighbors, colleagues, and family members won’t be aware of your surgery, as two black eyes or an abundance of bandages gives the cosmetic surgery away,” he adds.
Price. It’s well known that surgery abroad can be 50% less or more than the equivalent treatment in the U.S. “Yet providing consumers do their research, they can get the same expert standard of treatment here in America,” Hatton says.
Privacy. Many surgery experiences abroad come with a resort, where patients can recover in spa-type luxury while they wait for the swelling and bruising to subside. “Here, all patients are in the same boat, so it is a great place to hide in plain sight,” Hatton says. “Patients can combine their surgery and time it with their vacation, thus giving them a plausible excuse to get away.”
Traveling to warmer climes and saving money on the surgery has its appeal, experts say, but there are risks involved that go well beyond leisure and bargain hunting.
“These are intensely personal decisions, and it shouldn’t be too surprising that consumers are willing to travel to find the provider that best meets their unique and individual needs,” says Tom Seery, founder and chief executive officer at Real Self. “That’s the case whether they’re looking for a doctor who has superior expertise in a certain procedure or someone who has a specific approach to cosmetic enhancements.”
“However, we also know that saving money on a cosmetic procedure can be a motivation for travel,” Seery adds. “While cost is a consideration in any major purchase, we constantly advise our community members that price should never be the primary factor in choosing a surgeon.”
Plastic surgeons cite multiple risks when traveling abroad via “medical tourism.”
“Cosmetic surgery tourism is on the rise as patients travel for cheaper aesthetic surgery that are often bundled with all-inclusive vacation packages,” says Dr. Michelle Lee, a board-certified plastic surgeon at PERK Plastic Surgery, in Beverly Hills, California. “The cost of travel and cosmetic surgery overseas combined are often significantly cheaper than getting surgery in the United States.”
Lee says it’s “difficult” to vet the credentials of the physician or the quality of care in another country. “What we do know is that in a systemic review between 2005 to 2018 of 43 industry articles, complication rates after cosmetic surgery abroad can be as high as 56%,” Lee says.
Other U.S.-based cosmetic surgeons agree, adding that it’s vital health care consumers do their homework before they plan a surgery trip abroad.
“Financial concerns are a major driver of going overseas for plastic surgery but there is also the potential benefit of ‘plausible deniability’ by attributing your refreshed new look to a great vacation,” says Dr. Richard A. Baxter, a cosmetic surgeon based in Seattle, Washington.
Baxter warns that long-distance travel after surgery is “risky,” and recovery from surgery is not the best way to spend a vacation.
“Beyond cost savings, major challenges are how to know whether the facility and surgeon are up to standard, and management of any potential complications long-term needs to be part of the plan,” Baxter adds. “It can be very difficult to get an appointment with a plastic surgeon for management of a complication from plastic surgery overseas. For anyone seriously considering it, start by going to ISAPS.org (International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery) whose members adhere to international standards.”
Baxter also notes that inside-the-U.S. travel is not in the same safety category as traveling overseas for plastic surgery. “In-country travel is often for different reasons, such as to see a plastic surgeon with specific expertise or to stay with a family member and avoid scrutiny in your home town,” he says.
Tips for overseas travel
According to a recent study by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), the cost is a major deciding factor for 71% of patients. Despite the temptation of low-cost procedures, the AAFPRS warns consumers to be cautious of “too good to be true” deals and treatments in nonclinical settings.
The AAFPRS offers the following safety tips for choosing the right surgeon:
- Research surgeons and procedural information through more than online sources. Do your own research and talk to friends who have used the provider you are considering.
- Select a board-certified surgeon that specializes in plastic surgery of the face, head, and neck (or whichever body part you want to get surgery for).
- Ask your surgeon how often they perform the specific procedure.
- Ask your surgeon questions so that you are fully informed.
- Review before/after photos from the prospective surgeon.
- Blindly purchase procedures through online deals (96% of AAFPRS members are opposed to discounted procedures because the provider may be offering treatments that are not appropriate for the patient or the provider may not be trained in that specialty).
- Choose a surgeon based on cost alone. Remember safety and results are the most important factors when picking a surgeon. It is not the name of the procedure but rather the talent and experience of the surgeon that is important.
- Put yourself at risk by traveling abroad just to save money on a procedure.
“There is no bargain or fast fix when it comes to your face,” states Phillip R. Langsdon, M.D., president of the AAFPRS. “Bargain hunting, selfies, social media and the entrance of non-medical providers and treatments in non-medical environments have pushed aesthetic treatments into a dangerous level.”
Aesthetic treatments should be done by well-trained medical providers from core specialties and only in a medical clinic to ensure the safest, best possible outcomes, experts say.
“Remember, you want not only an experienced provider but also one that will be there to help should something not work out as planned,” Langsdon says.
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