American plastic surgeons lash out against medical tourism

As I’ve mentioned in a few of our older posts – medical tourism makes many American plastic surgeons very, very unhappy.   While many of their complaints are legitimate (patients could get inferior care, infections etc..) all of these complaints or comments apply to their American peers as well.  (On my sister site, we tackle many of the dubious practices in the USA (eye doctors performing liposuction, ‘fake’ doctors injecting people with fix-a-flat, and all those dentists, and hair salons injecting Botox.)

But today I take issue with Dr. Michael A. Bogdan, a plastic surgeon currently practicing in Southlake, Texas.  (Hope everyone is impressed in his degree in Zoology.) But back to the serious issues..

Dr. Bogdan recently authored an article published on Medscape questioning medical tourism in light of the PIP implant scare.  (The full article is re-posted below.)  While he makes some legitimate points in the article, (points that we have discussed here) about the lack of scrutiny on the medical travel agencies themselves, and the lack of data about complications from medical tourism surgeries – he grossly oversteps when he attempts to place the blame for the PIP implants on the feet of the medical tourism industry.

When you consider the THOUSANDS of medical devices (including different versions of breast implants) that have been recalled in the United States in the past 25 years – it undermines his whole premise.  I also find it somewhat offensive that he a.) dismisses all foreign surgeons as using faulty/ inferior equipment – that’s a wide, wide brush to use, Dr. Bogman.. 

and more importantly, b.) that in a small way – he almost sounds to me like he thinks that people who travel abroad for their surgical care – deserve to have these kinds of problems and complications.  Very uncool, and shame on you, Dr. Bogman.

In reality, Dr, Bogman and many other plastic surgeons here in the USA are lashing out at the bad economy which has dampened the public’s enthusiasm for surgical self-improvement.  (Though this article indicates the economy is recovering.)  It’s likely that as a plastic surgeon in Texas (a border state) that Dr. Bogman, seller of such procedural combinations as the ‘mommy makeover’ is feeling the loss of patients more than, let’s say a surgeon in Virginia..

More tellingly, and surprisingly, he doesn’t suggest that patients should research their surgeon wherever and whoever they are.

But read the article from yourself and decide:

The Cost of Medical Tourism by Michael A. Bogdan, MD

Complications From International Surgery Tourism Melendez MM, Alizadeh K Aesthet Surg J. 2011;31:694-697

Summary Medical tourism (ie, traveling outside the home country to undergo medical treatment) is a rising trend. An estimated 2.5 million Americans traveled abroad in 2011 to undergo healthcare procedures. This results in a significant direct opportunity cost to the US healthcare system. Complications from these procedures also affect the US healthcare system because patients often require treatment and have no compensation recourse from insurance. For cosmetic or other procedures that are not covered by insurance, economic motivators are driving medical tourism because some international clinics offer procedures at significantly lower costs, possibly by compromising the quality of care.

Very little data have been available to assess the outcomes, follow-up, and complication rates for patients undergoing cosmetic procedures abroad. The authors of this study distributed a 15-question survey to 2000 active members of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons about experiences treating patients with complications from procedures that they underwent during medical tourism. The response rate was acknowledged to be low, at 18%. Of the respondents, 80% had treated patients with complications arising from surgical tourism. Complications included infection (31%), dehiscence (19%), contour abnormalities (9%), and hematoma (4%). The majority of respondents reported not receiving any compensation for the care delivered to these patients.

Viewpoint Some patients travel to other states or countries seeking specialized care from surgeons who are experts in their field. In these cases, the patients understand that they will be paying a premium for the expertise, as well as the added expenses incurred for travel and lodging. These patients would be paying significantly more than they would have by undergoing the same procedure locally, but they consider the additional cost worthwhile due to the expected higher level of care.

The majority of patients who are attracted to medical tourism have a different motivation — they are trying to attain an equivalent level of care for a lower cost. Consumers are traditionally driven by price rather than quality and generally do not consider issues regarding follow-up and potential complications. Although reputable international clinics that offer high-quality care do exist, the greater majority that are trying to attract medical tourism patients are doing so by offering low prices. Overhead costs may be lower in other countries, but the level of regulation is also lower. Thus, the accepted standards of care tend to be lower as well.

A recent example of this issue is the current crisis involving breast implants manufactured by Poly Implant Prothèse (PIP).[1] Instead of using medical-grade silicone to manufacture these implants, PIP used substandard industrial-grade silicone as a cost-saving measure. Probably because of this, the implants have a markedly higher rate of rupture than other available breast implants. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery recommends removal or exchange of these implants to avoid further health risks.[2]

PIP implants have not been used in the US since 2000, owing to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision that the premarket approval application was inadequate.[3] In addition to blocking the use of these implants in the United States, the FDA sent a warning letter to the manufacturer discussing inadequacies in the manufacturing process.[4]

PIP implants have a significantly lower price point than implants approved for use in the United States and are therefore competitive in countries with less stringent regulation. International surgeons trying to entice patients with lower costs could easily justify using PIP implants. In my own practice, I have met patients who were lured overseas for less expensive surgery and ended up with PIP implants. These patients are now faced with additional expenditures for surgery to address complications.

If you have influence over a patient’s decision on where to undergo surgery, advise them of the adage: Buyer beware; you get what you pay for.

The case against ‘extreme makeovers’

While extreme plastic surgery makeovers (or multiple plastic surgery procedures at once) make for great television – they aren’t safe.  Prolonged (multi-hour, multi-procedure) surgeries place patients at greater risk of complications from anesthesia, bleeding, etc.  These ‘Mommy Makeovers’ sound like a good idea to patients – one surgery, less money and faster results – but the truth is – they just aren’t a good or safe idea.

Now an article by Laura Newman, [originally published  in Dermatol Surg. 2012;38:171-179] and re-posted at drives home that fact.

Combination Cosmetic Surgeries, General Anesthesia Drive AEs

February 9, 2012 — The use of general anesthesia, the performance of liposuction under general anesthesia, and a combination of surgical procedures significantly increase the risk for adverse events (AEs) in office-based surgery, according to reviews of statewide mandatory AE reporting in Florida and Alabama. More than two thirds of deaths and three quarters of hospital transfers were associated with cosmetic surgery performed under general anesthesia, according to an article published in the February issue of Dermatologic Surgery.

The study, derived from 10-year data from Florida and 6-year data from in Alabama, “confirms trends that have been previously identified in earlier analyses of this data,” write the authors, led by John Starling III, MD, from the Skin Cancer Center, Cincinnati, and the Department of Dermatology, University of Cincinnati, Ohio.

In a companion commentary, C. William Hanke, MD, from the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of Indiana, Indianapolis, presses for 3 patient safety practices: “(1) Keep the patient awake!… 2) Think twice before supporting a patient’s desire for liposuction that is to be done in conjunction with abdominoplasty under general anesthesia…. 3) “[B]e advocates for prospective, mandatory, verifiable adverse event reporting…[that] should include data from physician offices, ambulatory surgical centers, and hospitals to define and quantify problems that can be largely prevented and eliminated.”

The authors and editorialist are especially critical of liposuction performed under general anesthesia. The study revealed that although liposuction is perhaps one of the most common cosmetic surgical procedures, no deaths occurred in the setting of local anesthesia. “Liposuction under general anesthesia accounted for 32% of cosmetic procedure-related deaths and 22% of all cosmetic procedure-related complications,” the researchers write.

The researchers analyzed mandatory physician AE reports in ambulatory surgery submitted to their respective states, encompassing 10-year data in Florida and 6-year data in Alabama. A total of 309 AEs were reported during an office-based surgery during the 10-year period in Florida, including 46 deaths and 263 reportable complications or transfers to hospital. Cosmetic surgeries performed under general anesthesia accounted for the vast majority of deaths in Florida, with liposuction and abdominoplasty the most frequent procedures.

Six years’ worth of data from Alabama revealed 52 AEs, including 49 complications or hospital transfers and 3 deaths. General anesthesia was implicated in 89% of reported incidents; 42% were cosmetic surgeries. Pulmonary complications, including pulmonary emboli and pulmonary edema, were implicated in many deaths in both states.

Plastic surgeons were linked to nearly 45% of all reported complications in Florida and 42.3% in Alabama, write the researchers. Office accreditation, physician board certification, and hospital privileges all revealed no clear pattern.

One limitation acknowledged by the authors is that case logs of procedures performed under general and intravenous sedation are required in Florida, but are not public domain, and so were unavailable for analysis. In addition, investigators were not able to obtain data on the total number of liposuction procedures performed in either state. The lack of those data prevented them from calculating the overall fatality rate.

As readers of my previous publications know, the majority of surgeons I interviewed expressly do not perform multiple procedures during one surgery.  Also, many of them perform the majority of their procedures under conscious sedation with local anesthesia (which means you are awake, but you don’t care – and you don’t feel anything).