Medical tourists are falling in love with Jo'burg
July 26, 2002
By Philippa Garson
AS she sips herbal tea in the opulent surrounds of the Westcliff Hotel, Joan, a 59-year-old English teacher from Florida, has a spectacular view of the city's leafy suburbs and one of its greenest lungs -- the Johannesburg Zoo.
It's no surprise that Joan, a medical tourist in South Africa courtesy of Surgeon and Safari, thinks "Jo'burg is a great city". The city has treated her well: her every whim has been attended to by the staff of the Westcliff Hotel where she has enjoyed luxury at an affordable price; during her two-day visit to the Rosebank Clinic where she had a full facelift - "staff were wonderful, they couldn't have been kinder"; her surgeon's bedside manner was superb - and during her recuperative shopping sprees she has bought more wares than she knows how to take home - textiles, designer clothes, even some gold jewellery.
During her month-long visit to South Africa, Joan has stayed in top hotels (in Cape Town it was the Mount Nelson), gone on two luxury bush safaris, recuperated from her facelift with massages and beauty treatments, and spent plenty of money on expensive goods. She returns home enriched by her many experiences (and her shopping expeditions) and "looking 10 years younger" to boot.
A facelift alone in the United States would have cost three times the price here, with none of the extras. It's no surprise then that Joan hopes to returns. "If I come back, which I know I will, I'll have a breast lift and a tummy tuck." She is so enthused by the country she also spent some time looking at "real estate" and plans to start an African awareness club for her students. "It's ridiculous that this continent is still such a mystery to them," she says.
Joan is one of a growing number of "medical tourists" who, attracted by the country's world class surgeons, spectacular tourist destinations and the favourable exchange rate, are flocking here in growing numbers for affordable operations and luxurious, post-operative holidays.
High quality cosmetic surgery at relatively low cost is still the major draw card but other surgical procedures, including major operations like heart bypass surgery, hip and knee surgery and dentistry, are also in demand. Both the South African Dentists' Association and Cape Town Tourism describe "dental tourism" as a growing phenomenon and Netcare International says it frequently brings out European patients for major surgery.
Surgeon and Safari (www.surgeon-and-safari.co.za) is by far the most successful of several companies now offering package deals that incorporate cosmetic surgery, post-operative care in a top hotel and a holiday - either before or after the operation. Headed up by dynamic self-starter Lorraine Melvill, Surgeon and Safari has attracted extensive media coverage in the international press.
Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Reuters, The Independent, BBC Online, American National Public Radio, CNN, Harpers and Queen … to name a few, have all covered Surgeon and Safari's astounding, almost-overnight success.
Melvill has been asked to address business conferences to divulge her secrets. She jokes that she had to quickly scribble something down in the absence of any grand marketing or business plan. She attributes some of her success to: her ground level approach - communicating directly with clients, doctors, nurses and hotel staff; catering to the individual needs of each client; and a user-friendly website (most of the planning and administration occurs online).
Given the trend towards niche markets in the tourism industry, Melvill realised she could harness the unusual synergy between the demand for tourism on the one hand and for cosmetic surgery that is affordable, high quality and offers the client anonymity, on the other.
Joan heard about Surgeon and Safari on American National Public Radio (NPR) and immediately looked it up on the Internet. "I always knew South Africa was a modern country with advanced medicine on offer," says Joan. "After all, you had Chris Barnard."
Through the website, which Joan found "very good", she contacted Melvill, who put her in touch with others who had been medical tourists in South Africa. "I figured that for that kind of money I could have a fabulous vacation and surgery." Joan could have visited any number of plastic surgeons in nearby Boca Raton, near Palm Beach, but the lack of aftercare, endless bureaucracy and lack of anonymity - not to mention the high costs - put her off.
In her view South Africa "has everything. You obsess too much here about crime. Of course it must be taken seriously but wherever I've been, security has been strong. I went all over the place, to flea markets, etc, and I never felt threatened."
In her business initiative, Melvill was herself fuelled by a desire to break away from the negativity plaguing many South Africans who fail to see what spectacular products the country has to offer. "Look at our surgeons. They are world class." South African doctors have had the privilege of years of hands-on experience in hospitals like Chris Hani Baragwanath, the largest hospital in the southern hemisphere. She believes they are academically sound and tend to be conservative. "They may not always have the latest techniques, but newest doesn't always mean best," says Melvill.
Judging by her flourishing business - she is bringing in 20 to 30 people a month and the figure is escalating - her clients are satisfied with the results of their procedures - from breast augmentation to face lifts, nasal reconstruction, liposuction and tummy tucks - as well as their time spent recuperating in a five-star hotel and visiting tourist attractions. Most (90%) of Melvill's clients undergo cosmetic surgery, with half from the United States and the other half from the United Kingdom. While clients from the UK tend to opt for reconstructive surgery and are more conservative about how many procedures they will undergo, their American counterparts "come with a shopping list", jokes Melvill.
She believes the impact of her business on the country's tourism industry in general is enormous. People who visit - usually newcomers to South Africa - are unaware at first of the treasures the country has to offer, in particular "the First World service and hospitality at Third World prices". They return again and again, says Melvill.
Surgeon and Safari offers personalised programmes to its clients: it facilitates online and face-to-face consultations with registered surgeons selected by Melvill (some who visit the United Kingdom periodically for initial and follow-up consultations); meets clients at the airport and then puts them up at either the Westcliff or the Mount Nelson (both owned by the Orient Express Group) for one-to-two week recovery periods. Each client is assigned a personal assistant to give them all the support they need and arrange outings and post or pre-operative holidays for them. During their recuperation, patients are visited by body care clinicians for massages and other treatments to speed up the healing process.
Melvill's business is not without risk - "All surgery is high risk. But we are dealing with elective surgery. People have to take responsibility for a procedure they elect to undergo. This is not about computer-generated, before-and-after pictures. This is about human hands, the work of an artist, on one's body."
Surgeons will not automatically operate on everyone wanting to submit to the knife. People who are anorexic, obese or mentally unstable, for example, will be turned away, says Melvill.
Since the surgery is conducted in South Africa, doctors are bound by our laws, not the more litigious-friendly laws of the United States.