A nip and tuck before recovering poolside with a pina colada in hand may sound like a glamorous proposition to some, but Australian surgeons are warning that heading overseas to save money on cosmetic procedures could come at a much higher cost.
The cosmetic enhancement business is booming in Australia – industry estimates suggest it’s now a billion-dollar a year business. And just as it’s on the rise locally, it appears that more and more Australians are opting to have their breast augmentations, tummy tucks and liposuction performed overseas as a part of a package deal in locations such as Malaysia and Thailand.
We take a closer look at cosmetic surgery tourism to discover the highs and lows of a growing industry.
A large international study, the Sun, Sea, Sand, Silicone Project, estimated that Australians spend $300m a year on cosmetic surgery tourism, with an estimated 15,000 Australians heading offshore each year to go under the knife. Dr. Meredith Jones from the University of Technology, Sydney, who worked on the study, told Australian Associated Press, “Most people are attracted to it because it is cheap overseas but the agents are beginning to tell us that they are servicing people who are choosing to go overseas because they think they will get better work done.”
Even Australian health insurer NIB is become a player in the market, offering ‘NIB Options’. NIB Options is not a health insurance product but a fee-for-service which, according to their website, provides “safe and reliable choices for consumers wishing to undertake cosmetic and major dental procedures in Australia or overseas”.
A spokesperson from NIB said, “NIB Options is all about helping Australians to choose from a borderless network of surgical excellence as well as providing safety assurance”.
In Australia, the service only recommends members of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) who have at least 12 years of medical and surgical education. For overseas procedures, it chooses only registered and certified surgeons with at least five years of postgraduate training and 12 years of medical and surgical education. NIB Options also offers an ‘after-care’ promise of 12 months’ support after surgery.
So, how much can you save?
Often in Australia, cosmetic surgeons do not list pricing on their websites, with the caveat that costs will vary between patients and procedures. There are many costs associated with surgery – not just the surgeon’s fee – such as hospital or surgical facility costs, anesthesia fees, medication and medical tests.
“There is no way that in Australia we can match the cost of surgery in Thailand or somewhere similar,” says Flynn. “In many cases, it’s half the cost.”
Cassandra Italia says that patients can save “30–70%, depending on the hospital and expertise of the surgeon”, by having their cosmetic surgery done in particular countries.
For example, breast augmentation in Australia can cost around $10,000, while in Thailand you can pay less than $4000.
Travel and accommodation costs also have to be factored in, if they’re not part of a package deal, and the ASPS advises avoiding potential hidden fees by getting written financial details, including all out-of-pocket expenses for the surgeon, the anesthetist, assistant and hospital theatre or facility costs.
“Surprisingly, there’s been many cases where costs are not that much different,” says Flynn. “And it’s surprising that people would save themselves [an amount] as small as a 20% improvement in price as a trade-off for the accompanying risk profile.”
Both the Australasian College of Cosmetic Surgery (ACCS) and the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) say that cosmetic tourism trivializes invasive surgery and the decision should not be taken lightly.
“Surgical procedures and tourism should not appear in the same sentence,” says Dr, John Flynn, the ACCS’s chief censor. “Surgery used to be very well considered and a serious proposition. It’s not something that you can add on to a holiday and it’s not something you do simply because this is the cheapest way to go.”
Flynn says the way most patients are connected with their surgeon – through a tourism travel company who is receiving commissions for referrals – is also problematic.
“There is no doubt that there are skilled surgeons,” he says. “But the issue is that patients in Australia do not have the opportunity to research the good ones overseas. You could potentially leave that choice in the hands of a travel agent.”
What to look for
Before committing to any cosmetic surgery, it’s very important to do thorough research, ask for friends’ recommendations, and look for the surgeon’s qualifications, experience and national or international accreditation.
In Australia, look on the ASPS website for an accredited surgeon.
For surgeons overseas, look for one accredited by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS). Patients Beyond Borders, a website which offers consumer information about international medical and health travel, and NIB Options are also good places to start your research.
To help avoid the pitfalls of cosmetic tourism – and we’ve all heard the horror stories – the ASPS has compiled a list of things to look out for when contemplating cosmetic surgery overseas, which include asking the following questions:
- Is my surgeon a member of the ISAPS?
- Are the medical standards of care and quality control requirements at least as good as those in Australia?
- Have I been assured that the devices and products used in overseas hospitals meet Australian standards?
- Were the risks and complications explained to me?
- What will happen if things go wrong? Will the surgeon accept liability?
- Have I been told about post-operative care and what to do if complications arise after the surgery?
For the full list of questions, visit the ASPS website.
Twenty-six-year-old Erica Gordon had a breast augmentation in Bangkok and told CHOICE that she was happy with the result and felt in control of the whole process.
“I decided to have surgery overseas because I had several friends who had done the same and were very happy with the result,” she says. “The price was definitely a big factor which made me originally start researching. On [the agency’s] global website they had the history and qualifications of each surgeon, with ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures [of their patients].
“Once you’ve selected your doctor and hospital, you can view their full details on the hospital’s website, which include where they studied, what degrees they have and what they specialise in. Also, the hospital I chose (Bumrungrad International Hospital) was listed as one of the top 100 in the world.”
Erica said the procedure came with an initial consultation three days before the surgery and another the day before. “Everything was disclosed, all questions were answered and professional recommendations were also made,” she says.
“I’m very happy. The only thing that was not perfect was one [breast] looked slightly bigger than the other, due to my chest bone sticking out on one side, which I was told by my surgeon would happen pre-surgery, so I was fine with that.”