The rise of medical tourism and why it’s bad news for patients


Written by RealSelf doctors Darryl J. Blinski, MD and Alexander L. Blinski, MD

On RealSelf, the world’s largest online community for elective cosmetic procedures, we see the positive effect that plastic surgery can have on someone’s life. Yet despite the hundreds of positive stories of transformation shared on a daily basis, there will always be tales of cosmetic procedures gone wrong. From illegal fillers to extreme plastic surgery, making an unsafe, uneducated choice about a treatment can have costly and life-altering results.

Unfortunately, many people continue to put themselves at risk for the sole purpose of saving money. We often see this with people choosing to have medical procedures done outside the United States. Common countries for medical tourism include Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Colombia, mainly because they’re easy to get to and offer deeply discounted rates on cosmetic procedures.

The rise of ‘cheap’ medical tourism

While the initial boom of this trend began in the early 2000s, we saw these numbers grow at an even faster rate following the economic downturn in 2008. In fact, from 2013 to 2014 alone, interest in the topic on RealSelf grew over 10 percent.

But here’s the thing: While a procedure might seem more affordable upfront, medical tourism often costs a lot more than its initial price tag. These popular locations lack safeguards for their operating facilities, which have standards far below those in the U.S. And while the U.S. has trusted organizations like the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (both of which make it easy to check a doctor’s qualifications), international certifications are unreliable at best.

As doctors, we’ve seen noticeably higher complication rates — and even death — in those who’ve chosen to go under the knife across U.S. borders. The wrong decision could save you money, but end up costing you your life.

Complications follow patients home

On a weekly to monthly basis, my Miami office receives contacts from patients who underwent out-of-country cosmetic surgery with minor to serious postoperative complications. Individual cases we’ve seen include open wounds, infections, pulmonary issues, bleeding or hematomas, and poor results from sloppy techniques.

It’s also common to see patients who’ve received implants and fillers made of unknown or dangerous materials. A recent case involved a woman who underwent breast augmentation in Colombia, which resulted in scarring and asymmetric positioning. Upon examination, I discovered her implants were made out of German polyurethane, which is illegal in the United States and has the potential to be very dangerous. In fact, the FDA withdrew these types of implants from the U.S. market back in 1991, but they’re still being used in many parts of the world.

On top of the pain and health effects, there’s often little legal hope for medical malpractice claims against bad or illegal techniques. Laws vary greatly by country; patients or loved ones seeking information or damages should consult with a medical malpractice lawyer in the U.S. and in the country where the operation was performed.

Follow-up care is tricky

Traveling outside the U.S. also means that a patient lacks a follow-up physician once they’ve returned to the U.S. If a complication occurs, a U.S. plastic surgeon must inherit a problem not caused by his care. He has no knowledge of what was done or what materials were used during the initial surgery. The majority of the time, patients don’t even have a complete medical record or know all the important details of their procedures.

Pair this with the fact that patients often still want discounted prices stateside, and postoperative treatment becomes all the more complicated. For minor problems, in-office care can be easily performed, but if complications require a revision or additional surgery, fees can become extremely large.

Do your research before booking a flight

Please do your research before taking a leap of faith with medical procedures.

Ask yourself: What is your life worth?