By Michelle Andrews
Approaching 50 last winter and afraid her face was going to start "that famous sag," Kathleen Jackson visited a plastic surgeon near her home in Rockville, Md. His estimate for a chin lift, upper neck liposuction, and surgery to remove fatty deposits from her eyelids: $9,800. But the human resources exec ended up paying just over $4,000 for the same work, including four days in a private hospital room and a personal assistant to drive her to and from her doctor's appointments. She found this deal by expanding her search--all the way to South Africa.
Jackson is one of a growing breed of traveler, the medical tourist. Lured by promises of top-notch plastic surgery at cut-rate prices and the chance to see the world, even if through sutured eyelids, Americans are signing up to go under the knife overseas. Lorraine Melvill, whose Johannesburg-based Surgeon & Safari pioneered sun and scalpel tours four years ago, says 60 percent of the 40 or so clients she now works with every month are Americans.
Leery docs. Encouraged by her success, a number of South African competitors to Surgeon & Safari have sprung up, with similarly mismatched names like Mediscapes and Surgical Attractions. Other countries like Costa Rica, India, Lithuania, and Thailand are marketing themselves as medical tourism destinations--much to the dismay of many American docs, who are leery of foreign physician credentials and worry that recovering patients shouldn't bounce around on tour buses.
But for most patients, low prices outweigh safety concerns. Cheaper labor costs overseas plus a positive exchange rate can mean prices are a third to half of the U.S. charge. A patient who received a quote for an $8,875 face-lift in New York, for example, could have had a face-lift and a neck lift at Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital for just $2,820 (plus airfare, of course).
At Surgeon & Safari, the most experienced medical tourism company, here's how it works. The company has a Rolodex of South African doctors for plastic surgery, cosmetic dentistry, and LASIK eye surgery. Prospective patients send photo close-ups and communicate via E-mail or phone before arriving to make sure they are good candidates for surgery.
Once patients arrive, they're given kid-glove treatment. When Debra Ryan, 50, arrived from Islip, N.Y., in December, a driver picked her up at the airport in a Mercedes and took her to her guesthouse in a Cape Town suburb; it was surrounded by gardens and included the services of a cook/housekeeper. Following a meeting with the doctor, Ryan spent 7 1/2 hours undergoing surgery to lift and tighten her neck, face, brow, and breasts. After two days in the hospital, she returned to the guesthouse, where a nurse tended to her bandages, checked in on her daily, and drove her to appointments. Ryan says the pampering was heavenly.
No bounce. Despite a face puffy with bruises and the surgical tape and special bra she wore to support her breasts, Ryan took post-surgery trips, including a one-day safari in the African bush. "My nurse would have preferred I not go," says Ryan, who took mild painkillers to stay comfortable. The nurse called the safari company to make sure Ryan got a front seat with extra pillows to minimize bouncing.
Plastic surgeons in the United States say this to patients who travel overseas seeking a deal: You get what you pay for. It can be hard to assess the competency of a foreign surgeon, says Robert Bernard, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (box, below). Plus, the doc will not be available for follow-up care.
Ann Seton got the benefit of a U.S.-trained surgeon and a fabulous recuperation spot. The Manhattan interior designer, 45, checked into Jamaica's MoBay Hope Medical Centre in September for a face-lift and eyelid surgery. She recuperated a few hundred yards from the hospital, in a villa furnished in wicker and mahogany, with a terrace and private pool. Seton's doctor was Paul Lorenc, a New York-based, board-certified plastic surgeon who splits his practice between Park Avenue and Jamaica. Because he is based in New York, many patients, including Seton, have pre- and post-operative visits there. Of course, they pay for the privilege: Lorenc charges New York fees for his Jamaica work. In Seton's case, that means $8,500 for the lift and $5,500 for her eyelids (plus hospital charges of $3,400). But that hasn't hurt business. In October, Lorenc began offering "medispa" weekends for patients who want to fly down for Botox injections or Restylane treatments, the injectable "filler" just approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
For many, what makes medical tourism so appealing is that no one need know there was anything medical about the trip. Stan and Phyllis Albright visited South Africa a year ago for tummy tucks, liposuction, and eyelifts. (The couple, 68 and 61, respectively, asked that their real names not be used.) Back from South Africa, they threw a Super Bowl party. "Friends kept saying we looked fantastic," says Phyllis. Funny how a good vacation can be such an uplifting experience.