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Medical Tourism: Are the Savings Worth the Risks?

November 8, 2019

Traveling for bariatric surgery seems relatively common, as evidenced when you scan popular online support groups. While discounted prices and quick workups may be appealing, there are several things you should consider, especially if you are looking to go out of the country for your bariatric surgery. Medical tourism isn’t without risks and it is important you do the appropriate research and feel confident in your decision, no matter where you choose to have surgery.

Will You Meet Your Doctor Before Surgery?

Anytime you undergo a surgery, you are placing your life in the hands of a surgeon and the operating team. When traveling for surgery, you typically will only meet your surgeon, at most, a few days before your procedure is scheduled. Many times, you will have only communicated with their surgery sales staff prior to your arrival. Trusting your care provider and feeling confident in their skills and expertise is vital.

Bariatric surgery is a life changing operation, and it is important that you feel your care team is not only capable, but there for you when you need them. With limited time spent on the work up process, do you feel comfortable that the team is familiar with your specific health history and needs? What about your goals? Choosing a bariatric surgery practice close to home adds the benefit of getting to know your provider and care team as well as allows them to get to know you.

What About the Hospital or Surgical Facility?

The surgeon you choose is not the only factor in the success of your surgery. The facility where you will have surgery can be just as impactful to your surgical outcome. In the US, hospitals and surgery centers are held to different standards than those in other countries. Often the regulations and accreditation processes that help ensure high standards in US facilities are not consistent in other countries. In the US hospitals and surgery centers, most of the care team are likely employed or contracted by the surgery center or hospital itself. This includes the anesthesia provider.

Also consider that in case of an emergency during your surgery, will the facility be able to adequately care for you? Bariatric patients in general suffer with conditions that increase surgical risks. These potential risks should be carefully managed during surgery and are but one of the reasons to make sure you go through a thorough work up process prior to surgery. These risks include insulin dependent diabetes, high blood pressure, and obstructive sleep apnea, among others.

How Will You Handle Complications?

When having surgery outside of the US, you are electing to forgo US-based insurance coverage you may have. With this, you also lose coverage for post-operative complications, meaning you may be paying all medical bills related to your surgery. This includes any ER visits which may also require diagnostic exams, tests, imaging or reoperation.

Should you need to see a physician after your procedure, will you be able to travel back to see the operating surgeon, or will you be on your own to find care closer to home? Complications, while rare with a qualified surgeon, do occur and typically require immediate attention. Some surgeons in the US will not take on the risk of the complication from a patient who has opted for surgery outside of the US.

How Will You Access Follow Up?

Outside of potential complications from surgery, bariatric patients require regular follow up. Staying connected with your bariatric practice can make a difference in how you navigate the process of diet phases, lifestyle alterations, major weight loss, and the emotional journey that comes along with all of that. Patients who have weight loss surgery out of the US are often instructed to simply follow up with their primary care physician. Unfortunately, a primary care provider may not be well equipped to deal with a surgical complication or be familiar with the standards for post-op management after bariatric surgery. Issues like monitoring for specific vitamin deficiencies and quickly recognizing issues related to the altering of the stomach and small intestine may not be best recognized by someone who does not focus their practice in obesity surgery.

Choosing to have weight loss surgery closer to home also adds the benefit of being able to take advantage of their support network. Most practices offer scheduled bariatric support groups, events, and resources for their patients to help them find success in their weight loss journey. Online support groups can offer a lot, but patients often find meeting in person helps to keep them accountable and connected.

How Will You Travel?

If you are having surgery farther away from home, how will you be traveling? Travel can be stressful and uncomfortable, even without the added factor of incisions, a liquid diet, and gas post-surgery. Not only will you have just undergone a major abdominal surgery, you should be on a liquid diet after surgery. Driving will also be limited after surgery due to anesthesia and potentially other medications prescribed post-op. This extends beyond the hours immediately after surgery, as these drugs take time to fully exit your system.

Will you have a travel companion to help care for you and be with you during your surgery? How will you cover their expenses and are they who you would want close to you in case of an emergency? If you are staying at the facility overnight, will your companion be able to stay as well, or will you be spending the night alone with them in a hotel? You may not be cleared to fly immediately after surgery, so you may be adding the expense of an extended stay.

What is Included?

When looking at an attractive self-pay price for bariatric medical tourism, you want to consider what is included in that. Is the quoted price just the surgeon’s fee, or are factors like facility fees, pre-operative tests, labs, diagnostic imaging, anesthesia fees, and office visits also covered? Consider what work up is required, and what might be missing, both in terms of what you are getting for your money and what corners may be cut when it comes to your safety. Other costs associated with medical tourism can also add up including hotel accommodations, airfare, and meals for your companion.

What Can I Do If I Don’t Have Bariatric Coverage?

If you don’t have weight loss surgery coverage through your insurance, or you would prefer to move forward without their restrictions, our practice offers self-funded bariatric surgery programs. Similar to medical tourism, you simply pay outright for your procedure rather than it being billed through a third party insurance. Bariatric patients can also consider using third party financing to help them cover the expense of weight loss surgery.

Our self-pay programs have been carefully planned to provide a transparent view of the process and what is included as well as be most cost effective for the patient. With our competitive self-pay fees, patients can stay closer to home and take advantage of our team for full follow-up, care for potential complications from surgery, and a safe and reputable team of highly trained clinicians, led by Dr. Craig Chang, FACS.

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