“Medical tourism” is a term used to describe people who go to foreign countries for the purposes of having surgery performed. There are a number of reasons why patients might choose to go abroad for surgery: to save money vs. the cost in their home country; to access medical procedures that are not available locally (either because they have not yet been approved or are actually banned); or to “jump the queue” and get their procedure performed faster than they can arrange at home.
To be fair, there are many fine surgeons and clinics in other countries. And while it can clearly be advantageous to save some money, get exactly what you want (assuming you are informed enough to make a safe choice), or cut down on the waiting time for your surgery, it is very important to consider the risks that may be involved.
The most obvious is what will happen if something goes wrong with the operation itself. There is always the risk of complications developing during any surgery, or in the post operative period afterward. If you were to choose to go abroad for weight loss surgery the complications can be severe and there may be issues about access to more complex treatment. Will you get the best care? Will you have to come home to avoid skyrocketing costs? Can you even make these decisions if you are gravely ill?
Other complications might not be evident immediately but may be no less serious. For example if you have Lap-Band surgery abroad,what will you do if there is infection, band slippage or the adjustment port becomes displaced? These complications are unusual but do require specialized care by experienced clinics and surgeons. Do you journey all the way back to the country where you got your operation? Can you wait long enough to make travel arrangements if you are in pain or having difficulty eating? Or do you try to find a qualified surgeon locally who is willing and able to see you on short notice?
Surgical complications are not the only dangers. Having a Lap-Band procedure while in another country ignores the role of ongoing follow-up care in ensuring a successful outcome. A successful result from bariatric surgery (such as a Lap-Band procedure) is not just a matter of having the operation go smoothly. Continued monitoring, support, care, and maintenance are crucial to helping patients transition to their new relationship with food and safely navigate the Lap-Band recovery process. Follow-up visits to provide guidance and encouragement can make a huge difference – and these are harder (and much more costly) to arrange in another country, even one as close as the United States.
In the specific case of a Lap-Band procedure, remember that the device is more properly called a laparoscopic adjustable gastric band — emphasis on the word “adjustable.” As a patient’s weight-loss progresses, the band’s tightness will likely need to be changed. A patient who has had the operation done abroad will face a choice where neither option is all that good. They can either try to coordinate a return to the foreign country at the right moment to get adjustments – difficult to do without ongoing monitoring – or they can try to “transfer” the ongoing portion of their weight-loss effort to a local surgeon, although they may find that local surgeons are reluctant to support a surgery they did not perform, especially if it uses medical technology they might not be familiar with.
Given all the downsides, procedures such as a Lap-Band surgery abroad are probably not a good idea. At the very least, prospective medical tourists should think long and hard about more than just saving time or money in the short run.