Medical Tourism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
With the rise of the internet and globalization, the world is literally at our fingertips. Not only can we easily cross borders for leisure travel and tourism, it is possible to visit nearly any country to conduct business or to purchase goods and services.
In recent years, this worldwide open marketplace has given rise to another growing trend: medical tourism. According to recent statics gathered in the publication Patients Beyond Borders: World Edition, it is estimated that the market size for medical tourism is $45.5-$72 billion (USD), representing approximately 12 million patients worldwide seeking medical treatment outside their borders.
While visions of exploring exotic locales may be a driving factor for some seeking medical procedures abroad, patients often consider medical tourism from an economic perspective -- as the cost of many procedures may be substantially less expensive when performed in another country. This is particularly true for cosmetic surgery, which ranks among the top procedures for medical tourism. Since cosmetic procedures such as hair transplants are not covered by health insurance in most countries, the lure of cheaper surgeries in a foreign country may appear to be just the bargain some patients are looking for.
But as the old adage goes "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is", consumers need to exercise extreme caution when considering a hair restoration procedure across borders and do their homework well before their tickets are booked and bags are packed. Many specialists in the field of hair restoration have been seeing complications from these “cheap clinics” that no patient bargained for.
Buyer Beware: Cheaper Surgeries Can Come at a Price
In an ideal world, all physicians would abide by the Hippocratic Oath swearing to uphold the highest ethical standards in practicing medicine. However, the reality is, this is not always the case. When it comes to medical tourism, certain physicians or businessmen can stand to profit from unethical practices such as misleading advertising that uses their credentials to lure unknowing patients to clinics with the promise of cheap surgeries in ‘expert hands’. But, in a classic case of bait and switch fashion, non-physicians are actually the ones performing hair transplant surgeries rather than a qualified physician. Depending on the locale, this may be an illegal practice that poses potentially serious consequences for patients.
Complicating the issue even further is the fact that different countries have different laws and regulations on the practice of medicine, including who can perform surgery and where it can be performed. For example, Turkey has become a medical tourism hotspot for hair transplants -- mainly due to the promise of cheaper surgeries. However, reports have surfaced recently of black market hair transplant clinics in Turkey where technicians -- not physicians -- are illegally performing hair transplants in private hospitals or clinics, and marketing companies get paid for referring them.
When patients have hair restoration surgery performed by non-doctors, they are at risk of misdiagnosis, failure to diagnose hair disorders and related systemic diseases -- which can result in the performance of unnecessary, ill-advised or unsuccessful surgery. The International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery (ISHRS), the largest physician group advocating for hair loss patients, strongly believes that these potential risks jeopardize patient safety and treatment outcomes and has been educating consumers and regulators about this problem.
Doing Your Homework Pays Off
While no one wants to get duped into getting an illegally performed hair transplant surgery, it can be hard to determine if a physician or clinic advertised in another country is legitimate. That's why the ISHRS urges potential patients to always ask the following questions, in addition to questions regarding costs, risks and short- and long-term benefits, planning for future hair loss and the best use of finite donor hairs, before scheduling a hair transplant in any part of the world:
1. Who will evaluate my hair loss and recommend a course of treatment? What is their education, training, licensure, and experience in treating hair loss?
2. Who will be involved in performing my surgery, what role will they play, and what is their education, training, licensure, and experience performing hair restoration surgery?
3. Will anyone other than the doctor, or not licensed by the state, be making incisions or harvesting grafts during my surgery? If so, please identify this person, explain their specific role and credentials, and why they are legally permitted to perform surgery.
4. Is everyone involved in my surgery covered by malpractice insurance?
If a physician is unwilling to answer your questions or provide information you are requesting, it could be a red flag that this practice is not on the up and up. Trust your instincts and don't make rash decisions in search of a bargain that could cost you in other ways. The consequences of a botched hair transplant can be serious and long-lasting. As they always say in school, ‘caveat emptor’ or ‘buyer beware’ -- and, do your homework!
Reputable Physicians Make All the Difference
When performed by the right physician, today's hair restoration surgery safely and effectively creates natural-looking, permanent results that are virtually undetectable. There are many excellent, reputable physicians in all areas of the world who perform exceptional hair transplants, and some patients travel thousands of miles to be entrusted in their capable hands. Using all the available resources can help you find a qualified hair restoration physician, either in your own backyard or in a country you've always dreamed of visiting. Do your homework, and be an educated consumer to avoid being an unnatural disaster.