Picture the scene: having undergone cosmetic surgery for less cash than you would have paid at home, you spend your week’s recovery lounging by the pool at one of Dubai’s top hotels, before jetting home with bigger boobs/a nicer nose/a flatter stomach. Sounds like a good deal, right? Which is exactly why the medical tourism industry is booming right now, with Dubai a rising star.
James Frame, a professor of aesthetic surgery and chairman of ISAPS’s commission on medical tourism, tells Time Out: ‘The US and Britain are the most expensive places in the world for cosmetic surgery, so you’ll find that a lot of Americans and Britons are going abroad for their surgery. The major hubs tend to be South America and the Far East. However, were it marketed correctly, Dubai should be one of the most important areas for medical tourism.’
Dr Khan agrees. ‘The main driving force for medical tourism is price,’ he says. ‘Surgery in Dubai isn’t necessarily cheap, but we can compete because of the exchange rate and, mainly, tax. The flights, quality of hotels and the fact that we’re halfway between East and West make it a very good potential hub.’
But how safe is medical tourism? How can you check the quality of surgeons and facilities abroad? And is it a good idea to fly before and after surgery? ‘Although we as surgeons are supposed to be responsible and say that it’s bad for patients to travel because of the risk of deep-vein thrombosis, the risk is actually remarkably low,’ says Professor Frame. ‘There are clearly dangers associated with going to a non-English-speaking country and not knowing who your surgeon is or what he’s done. In theory it shouldn’t be encouraged. But because the cost savings are huge, you can’t stop people from doing it.’
And it’s not just the patient that benefits; the country hosting the surgery enjoys financial rewards, too. Insurance insiders estimate that UK residents alone will spend Dhs159 billion on surgeries abroad next year and that doesn’t include the cost of hotels or pursuits other than going under the knife. So no one is going to start denouncing medical tourism any time soon.
Perhaps the biggest problem arising from this trend is that if surgery abroad is botched, patients wind up paying twice as much to correct the complications back in their home country. Professor Frame explains that, for example, a British patient returning with a complication (such as a wound reopening) will have it dealt with at cost to the NHS, but the NHS won’t then deal with the cosmetic result of that wound – ‘the patient has to fork out again’. Frame says one NHS hospital calculated that it spent more than Dhs2 million correcting complications arising from surgery abroad, so it’s not just pricey for the patient.
ISAPS is in the midst of putting together an initiative, branded Medical Procedures AbroadTM, that would insure patients for extra surgery arising from complications – provided they see ISAPS-registered surgeons. Still, it seems the overall safety of cosmetic surgery is questioned by ISAPS’s research into bringing this initiative to fruition. ‘A lot of people are very uncomfortable answering questions to do with medical tourism,’ says Professor Frame. ‘If you try to find out what goes on in Thailand, they won’t tell you. And we’ve got to be accurate on the figures [regarding complications] to give to the insurance group we’re working with.’ Professor Frame includes first-world countries in his list of nations that aren’t providing proper figures – many because they don’t collect them.
The Medical Tourist's Checklist
1 Is the surgeon a member of a recognised cosmetic surgery society, such as ISAPS?
2 Do staff at the facility speak your language?
3 Conduct your pre-operation consultations via email
4 Stay in the country for at least a week after surgery
5 Check your insurance. Most insurers won’t cover you for surgery abroad, but you could try to obtain international medical coverage through your agent
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