Let the medical tourist beware

Traveling can be an interesting and exciting part of our lives, and sometimes we are lucky enough to combine the pleasures of travel with the needs of our vocation. I have attended many medical meetings and conferences in some pretty exotic locations.

On the other hand, a recent and growing trend is not to travel for work or pleasure, but rather to seek medical care outside the confines of these United States. While this phenomenon known as medical tourism may present opportunities for saving money, caution is indicated, as my personal experience in Dubai will show. Of the many things I learned during my trip, the importance of thoroughly investigating standards of care outside the country, before becoming a patient, can have a critical effect on your life.

In 2007, I was asked to be the medical director of a new hospital to be devoted to cosmetic surgery in Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. I was extremely excited by the opportunity to visit a part of the world I had never seen. So much seemed to be happening in this country that boasted both the tallest skyscraper in the world and a desert with some of the tallest sand dunes in the world. The contrasts between the new and the old were astounding. I remember one day when we shopped in a mall with an indoor ski slope and that night had a traditional desert meal and “sledded” down a sand dune. We sampled exotic fare and visited an archipelago of islands that was entirely man-made in the shape of a palm tree. Although my visit was replete with these memories and many more, my work experience there was not as rewarding.

Dubai Healthcare City was an enormous project supported by the leadership of the country. The idea was to build multiple hospitals, each with its own specific medical discipline, in one geographic locale. This city of health care would then serve as a magnet, drawing patients from an entire region that included more than 50 million people who lived less than four hours away by plane. There would be an associated medical school and physician staff drawn from around the world. One of the hospitals being built was devoted to cosmetic surgery and I was to serve as both an operating surgeon at the facility and its medical director. I still remember the excitement of beginning to recruit plastic surgeons from both the United States and Europe who would be working at this facility. Things didn’t quite work out the way I planned.

I was in the country when the hospital construction was being completed and I soon found that the hospital was not up to the standards I expected from my experiences with hospitals here. The rooms were quite beautiful, with suites available for use by extended family as well as patients during recovery, but the medical standards were not up to par at that time. Without the ability to enact the changes that were necessary and remembering one of the most basic dictums of all physicians, “Above all do no harm,” I felt obligated to resign from the project and return home. I only hope my successors were able to accomplish what I could not.

For the person considering medical tourism for your care, remember that there are two major areas to research before you embark on this path. The first is to investigate the standards of care in the country you are visiting, and just as important, how those standards are enforced. Second, be mindful that complications can happen in any surgical procedure and know in advance how care will be provided if you have a problem with surgery that was performed in another country. For myself, I’ll stick to traveling for fun.

Please send any questions or comments to mrosenberg@nwhc.net.

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