Medical Tourism: What You Need to Know

Each year, thousands of Australians board planes to have cosmetic enhancement procedures performed in other countries – the most prominent of which is Thailand.

For those wanting tummy tucks, liposuction or breast augmentation, the benefits of medical tourism seem blatantly obvious. Who wouldn’t want pay up to 30-40 percent less than they’d pay in Australia while sipping a cocktail by the pool?

But there’s more to the story. When taking a closer look at medical tourism, many realise that the benefits associated with it are greatly outweighed by the risks.

In this post, we will explore medical tourism with a strong focus on cosmetic enhancement to ascertain what it is, why people do it and the risks taken when having procedures performed overseas.

What is Medical tourism?

In 2015, medical tourism has become synonymous with people from highly developed countries seeking ‘a cheap deal’ overseas. Traditionally, the term was applied to people from less developed countries seeking higher quality medical treatment.

People may also choose to participate in medical tourism if a certain procedure is illegal in their home country or if they have a specific condition that is better understood elsewhere.

Despite its growing popularity, medical tourism is nothing new. Ancient Greeks used to travel to the Saronic Gulf, which was believed to be the sanctuary of Asklepios, the God of healing.

The earliest recorded form of modern medical tourism was the spa towns and sanatoriums of 18th century England. People traveled to these places to treat conditions like gout, liver disorders, and bronchitis.

Why is medical tourism appealing?According to the University of Leeds, people who opt for medical tourism are generally ‘ordinary people on modest incomes’. Their decision to have surgery is not a snap decision either. They have been thinking about it, on average, for 5-10 years.

While some people think it is merely an exercise in vanity, most people who have procedures performed just want to look or feel “normal.”

Therefore, it is not surprising that breast augmentation seems to be the most popular procedure abroad. When you factor in that this procedure can cost $8,000 in Australia and less than $4,000 in Thailand, it is no wonder that people are flocking overseas.

Medical Tourism- it’s no holiday

If you were hoping this article would support the idea of pursuing cosmetic surgery abroad – sorry to burst your bubble.  However, keep reading because there are a few things you should consider before making a decision.

1. Increased risks

By having any medical procedure performed in a less developed nation, you are increasing the risks to your health. Tropical environments such as Thailand are prone to infection, particularly if rigorous hygiene is not maintained.

What’s more, many hospitals do not have an Emergency Room onsite, so if there is an emergency during the procedure, the hospital may not be adequately equipped to deal with it.

The risks are not only isolated to the hospital. There is an increased risk of post-operative deep vein thrombosis during the flight home, which can be life-threatening.

One Perth woman who had a breast augmentation in Thailand was infected with a Thailand-based superbug during surgery; causing her to spend 7 months in hospital to regain her health. She is still dealing with emotional distress and health complications 4 years later.

2. Unfamiliarity

It might seem obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind that other countries may have a different language, laws, and culture to your own.

With any medical procedure, communication is paramount in any doctor-patient relationship. When communicating in the surgeon’s second language, there is potential for misunderstanding in terms of desired treatment.

In Australia, many people take surgeons’ expertise for granted.   We have very strict laws on accreditation that are not practiced in other countries. Therefore, even though procedures abroad may be a fraction of the cost, they might not be performed with the same standardisation.

Thailand is renowned for having a lack of medical regulation. Perhaps if it had more medical regulation, a 24-year-old British woman would still be alive today.

If something goes wrong, it can be very difficult to know your rights and whether a surgeon will accept liability of mishaps when you are far from the familiarity of home.

3. Skipping steps to cut costs

One of the main differences in the procedure is the process, which is significantly shorter overseas.

Why is this a problem? A consultation 3 days prior to surgery in South-East Asia is typically not long enough to build a relationship of trust and understanding between the surgeon and patient.

In Australia, the majority of the process occurs post-operative, with follow-ups occurring for roughly 12 months after the procedure. This ensures that there is nothing amiss and that the patient’s health has not been compromised.

The biggest complications to any cosmetic enhancement occur after surgery and the fact that there are generally no follow-ups in other countries borders on negligence. In a study conducted by the University of Leeds, researchers found that “Most [patients] needed stitches replacing/ removing, infections treating with antibiotics, or seromas draining” after cosmetic surgery in Thailand.

4. Benefits now = costs later

Surgery is risky regardless of where it is performed. Even in Australia, where medical training is first class and regulations are stringent, things can go wrong. It is important that the surgeon and patient are located in the same place in case any pain, distress or complications arise. They are, after all, the best person to treat you.

As medical tourism increases, so too do the incidents of people returning home with problems associated with surgery. This is supported by a study by the University of Leeds, which found that “16.5% of our patients experienced complications from their surgeries. 8.7% received further treatment in the NHS or Medicare upon returning home.”

Having corrective surgery back home adds significantly to medical bills – so the original benefits (lower surgery costs) may be negated by paying more later.

5. Holiday activities are restricted during recovery

If the added bonus of a holiday after cosmetic enhancement is what you want, think again. Those who have had surgery before know that the recovery period is often quite painful. Many things that people enjoy on their getaways (drinking alcohol, swimming, sunbaking, etc.) are very much on the restricted list.


There is a discernible difference in the quality of cosmetic enhancement at home and abroad, leading one to believe that even though medical tourism is often cheaper, it is not as good and poses increased risks.

Every procedure has risks, but these risks can be limited by having the surgery performed in a familiar environment by a trusted, board-certified doctor. If you are in the Perth or Cairns region and are considering a breast augmentation, please contact Dr Robert Goldman’s team.

Dr Goldman is an experienced and skilled cosmetic surgeon who will give the best possible results by providing the highest level of care and on-going support.


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