Britons are going overseas for cut-price cosmetic surgery and IVF without the wait. But medical tourism can be a gamble
Holidaymakers jetting off abroad this summer will be packing their travel essentials – but an appointment card for the plastic surgeon is unlikely to be slipped into most suitcases. Yet for an increasing number of Britons, a nip and tuck or a nose job is becoming as important on holiday as a tan or a souvenir keyring.
The number of Britons undergoing procedures abroad has risen by 109% in the past two years, according to research by private healthcare search engine WhatClinic.com. From dentures in Thailand to bottom lifts in Turkey, more and more people are seeking surgery abroad, tempted by low-cost flights and the promise of cosmetic surgery at a fraction of the price offered in the UK.
Eastern Europe has the largest number of hubs for cosmetic tourism. The Czech Republic, for example, has seen a 304% increase in inquiries from Brits for nose jobs in the past year, with an average procedure costing £847 versus £3,557 in the UK. Those looking for breast implants are heading to Poland, where they can make considerable savings, paying an average of £1,972 instead of £3,736 in Britain.
The results, however, aren't always a bargain. This is a lesson that actor and model Sonia learned the hard way. The 35-year-old wanted her nose altered and was excited to find the procedure was available in Pakistan – where she was born – for a snip of the price advertised in the UK. She jumped at the chance to visit friends and family and get treatment at the same time. It sounded too good to be true. And it was.
Instead of a lengthy consultation and one-to-one care at the private clinic, she found herself on a conveyor belt of other patients, rushed through the operating theatre to make way for the next paying customer. That might have been fine if the surgeon had lived up to his advertised reputation, but the new nose was not what she was hoping for.
"I knew exactly what was supposed to be done and it was only half-corrected," she explains. "I emailed the doctor and he suggested I come back for more. It's not like getting your nails done, though, it's surgery. I started questioning it – is this a deliberate strategy so I come back?"
Sonia's story is not an isolated case. A survey by the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (Baaps) revealed the number of patients reporting complications after treatment abroad is on the increase. Three out of five Baaps members reported a rise of at least 25%-35% during the past five years.
Consultant plastic surgeon and Baaps member Bryan Mayou warns against the allure of bargain-basement deals and treatments not available in the UK. Banned procedures such as injecting toxic "filler" substances in your buttocks to give you a bigger behind are illegal in the UK for a reason, he says. Dr Massimiliano Marcellino, a cosmetic surgeon at CosMedocs, says around a fifth of the correction surgeries he carries out are on patients who are unhappy with the results after visiting clinics overseas – mostly liposuction and facelifts in eastern Europe.
Lack of regulation in many countries means standards fluctuate around the world. In the UK, Marcellino explains, a surgeon's performance is strictly monitored, with routine training and independent yearly appraisals. A surgeon must be registered to perform cosmetic surgery specifically, be a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and, in order to be considered "highly qualified", should have carried out in excess of 5,000 major operations.
"Following a procedure, your surgeon should be available to you 24 hours a day in case you have any concerns," Marcellino adds. "Make sure the clinic you visit provides you with emergency contact details and gives a detailed explanation of the aftercare required."
Cosmetic surgery isn't the only treatment UK patients are travelling abroad for. Huge costs and long NHS waiting lists for IVF have led to serious growth in demand for fertility hubs around Europe.
Kate was in her late 30s when she and her partner began trying for a baby. After three very late miscarriages, it became clear they would need professional medical help. Six years of fertility treatment on the NHS followed, but still no child. When the clinic they were using eventually closed, the couple were told that if they wanted to carry on, they would have to seek donor eggs. But since legislation ending anonymous egg and sperm donation was passed in April 2005, stocks in clinics across the UK have dwindled, with potential donors apprehensive about the prospect of being traced by their genetic offspring later in life.
Spain, due to strict donor anonymity laws, has no such problem, and the wait can be as little as a few months. Excited but nervous, Kate flew for a consultation at a Barcelona IVF clinic. "From the very first phone call they were amazing. They made me feel that this was a normal, natural thing to do," she explains. Five weeks later, she was called back for treatment. At 42, she was finally pregnant with her first daughter. The opportunity to freeze the remaining fertilised donor eggs means she has also conceived again through the same treatment.
For patients such as Kate, travelling abroad for treatment has given her the opportunity to start a family – a dream she struggled to fulfil in the UK. But any Briton considering treatment abroad should be aware of the potential risks. By carefully researching the qualifications and experience of the surgeon, as well as your legal rights as a patient in the country you are visiting, you can avoid the physical and mental trauma experienced by increasing numbers of medical tourists.
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