3 precautions to take if you choose to travel for weight loss surgery

It’s difficult to pin down the exact number of people who travel abroad to access medical services, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that thousands of U.S. residents do so each year. And Patients Beyond Borders, a consumer source of information about medical tourism, says weight loss surgery is among the most-sought specialties, along with cosmetic surgery, dental work and cancer and heart treatments.

There are a number of reasons people travel to get these procedures, but two of the most common are:

  • Lower costs: Surgical procedures in some countries can cost up to 80 percent less than in the U.S.
  • Broader eligibility criteria than in the United States: We follow National Institutes for Health guidelines to determine who is eligible for bariatric surgery. It’s not done purely for cosmetic reasons. This isn’t the case in some countries, so people who might not qualify in the U.S. may be eligible elsewhere.

Not everyone who travels for medical care crosses the U.S. border. When a procedure or treatment isn’t available locally, some patients may need to go to a distant city or state to get it.

I’ve never had a patient ask me for advice before going abroad for bariatric surgery, but I have seen patients over the years seeking follow-up care or treatment for complications. Before you travel to get a procedure, such as gastric bypass or sleeve gastrectomy take these precautions.

1. Thoroughly research the doctor and facility

Each country has its own standards that healthcare providers and facilities must meet, and these can be very different from the United States. Check the qualifications of your doctor and facility and learn how they compare to those in the U.S.

You also can check with international accrediting organizations, which require facilities to meet a list of standards to be certified. The CDC recommends ensuring your facility is accredited by the Joint Commission International,  DNV GL - International Healthcare Accreditation or the International Society for Quality in Health Care.

Ask about your doctor’s experience. How many surgeries have they performed and what are their success rates?

Get in writing the specific treatment, supplies and care covered in the costs. You don’t want to be surprised when you arrive or get the bill.

2. Arrange for before- and after-care close to home

Bariatric surgery doesn’t start and end in the operating room. It’s not just an anatomical change; it changes how you’ll live the rest of your life. This type of change requires support–before and after surgery.

Procedures, such as gastric bypass, change how your body processes and absorbs food. They require major lifestyle and dietary changes. If you don’t understand what you can eat, when you can eat it, and how much of it you can eat, you can suffer from digestive problems or vitamin deficiencies.

Pre-surgery education and long-term follow-up care are essential components to a successful bariatric surgery outcome. Weight loss surgery patients in the United States go through, on average, six months of preparation and education by dietitians and other healthcare providers. After surgery, we recommend ongoing dietary supervision and regular appointments the first year and then yearly afterward, to monitor for nutritional deficiencies and other complications.

If you travel for surgery, it’s likely not feasible—or even an option—to spend months before and after surgery in that destination for education and follow-up care.

Form a relationship with a local bariatric surgery program to receive pre- and post-surgery education and care. Remember to check with your insurance company. If you’re having surgery outside the country, this care may not be covered by your plan. But as I said, this support is crucial to achieving your goal of long-term weight loss.

"If you must travel to get bariatric surgery, establish a plan for before- and after-care close to home." via @MedStarWHC

3. Plan for language barriers and potential complications

If you receive care in a country where you do not speak the language fluently, determine how you will communicate with your doctor and care team. While foreign language interpreters may be commonplace in U.S. healthcare facilities, don’t expect every place to have them. It’s vital that you are able to effectively communicate with your team, so there are no misunderstandings about your care.

Complications can arise, and you must be prepared for them. For instance, you may need to stay longer than anticipated to recover. If the problem is severe, you may need to return to the U.S. for more advanced care.

If you or a loved one has to be transferred from one hospital to another, you know how involved that move can be–even within the same city. Now think about the difficulty involved in transferring a patient to another country.

Keep in mind that flying after surgery has its own risks, including deep venous thrombosis (blood clots) and pulmonary embolism (blockage of an artery in the lung). To help prevent these complications during your flight:

  • Get up and walk around every two hours
  • Move your legs while sitting
  • Stay hydrated
  • Wear compression stockings

Bariatric surgery can be a lifesaver for people who struggle with severe obesity and the complications that can accompany it, such as diabetes and hypertension. But it’s more than surgery; it’s a set of lifestyle changes that requires education and continuous support. When possible, it’s best to get this care close to home. But if you must travel, whether to the next town or overseas, make the preparations necessary to optimize for a successful outcome.

 

Schedule an appointment to talk with our bariatric surgery team about pre- or post-surgery support.

6 frequently asked questions about bariatric surgery

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Bariatric surgery has been available in the U.S. for more than 50 years, and surgeons are doing more every year. In fact, our team performed 336 of these procedures in 2016, compared with 257 in 2013.

Still, bariatric surgery is still not well understood, and many people have questions about it.

I’ve heard many. Two of the most frequent ones I get are, “Is bariatric surgery safe?” and “Will I be left with a lot of flabby skin?”

Bariatric surgery, such as gastric bypass or sleeve gastrectomy, can be a lifesaver for people struggling with obesity and its side effects. So let’s get to the truth of some of the most common questions.

Is bariatric surgery dangerous?

Patients often tell me that friends and family worry they will die during bariatric surgery and try to discourage them from getting a procedure. I suspect this fear is a holdover from when the surgery was new.

As with any surgical procedure, the risks from bariatric surgery were much greater when it was first developed. But with the advent of minimally invasive techniques, such as laparoscopic and robotic surgery, which come with fewer complications, the procedures’ safety has dramatically improved.

In fact, the latest data show that bariatric surgery is safer than having your gallbladder removed. The mortality rate for bariatric surgery is 0.25 percent compared with 0.7 percent for gallbladder removal.

And don’t forget that obesity also is dangerous, increasing the risk of life-threatening conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, and even decreasing lifespan.

"The latest data shows that bariatric surgery is safer than having your gallbladder removed."

Will I be left with a lot of excess skin after bariatric surgery?

This is a complex issue and it’s specific to every individual. The bigger you are and the more weight you lose, the more excess skin you’ll have. But most patients find they have less excess skin than they expected.

The best advice I can give to avoid excess skin is to maintain and increase muscle mass, giving the skin lean tissue to contract over. I’m not saying you need to become a body builder or look like a star athlete. But developing a fitness routine that promotes healthy muscle tone will help reduce excess skin.

If you do have sagging skin that bothers you, you can explore body contouring, which is an umbrella term for procedures, such as tummy tucks and lifts to the upper arms, midsection, back, thighs, buttocks and hips.

Will I just regain  the weight after weight loss surgery? 

Everyone seems to knows someone who had bariatric surgery and gained all the weight back. But in reality, that’s pretty rare. A 2016 study found that only 3 percent of study participants who had gastric bypass regained most or all of the weight they lost after 10 years.

Weight loss after bariatric surgery occurs on a curve. Weight drops rapidly right after surgery and continues for 18 months to two years. A little weight gain is expected after that, but then it should plateau. This is normal, and we’re talking about a few pounds, not a massive amount of weight (usually about 5 percent).

When a patient does regain a considerable amount of weight, we first try to determine whether there was a problem with the surgery. For example, in gastric bypass, the surgeon reduces the size of the stomach and reconnects the small intestine to the new stomach, bypassing the original stomach and several feet of the small intestine. One rare complication of this surgery is gastrogastric fistula, in which food goes into the old stomach instead of the new stomach pouch, causing weight gain.

Most weight gain can be traced back to dietary habits. People don’t come back for after-care appointments or follow diet recommendations, or they simply fall back into old habits. And while someone might go through all the pre-surgery education, their psychological relationship with food may not change post-surgery.

Regaining all the weight can happen, but it’s rare. We’ll work with you and a dietitian to help you get back on track before you regain too much of the weight you worked so hard to lose.

Is having weight loss surgery the easy way out?

I’m amazed that in this day and age some people still think of surgery as the easy way out. There is nothing easy about bariatric surgery. People who have these procedures prepare for six months on average and then must change their lifestyle and diet after surgery. It’s a lot of work.

Attend our free information sessions to see if bariatric surgery is right for you.

The National Institutes of Health recognizes bariatric surgery as the only effective way to treat severe obesity and maintain long-term weight loss.

Losing weight through diet and exercise can be extremely difficult. Many people experience the yo-yo effect, in which they lose and gain weight multiple times. This can wreak havoc with a person’s metabolism, making losing weight even more difficult. In fact, less than 5 percent of people who lose weight by diet and exercise are able to maintain long-term weight loss.

And weight loss medications come with their own problems. Along with potential side effects, they only work as long as you take them. There’s no long-term weight loss effect.

Will I develop a vitamin deficiency after weight loss surgery?  

Vitamin deficiencies are a real concern after bariatric surgery. Your body will not be able to absorb them, as well as it used to. However, taking a daily multivitamin and following your dietary recommendations should ward off potential problems.

Severe vitamin deficiencies don’t develop overnight, and we have processes in place to catch them early. We check your vitamin levels six months after surgery, at a year, then yearly after that. If your levels are low, we’ll work on it before it becomes a problem.

Will I still be able to eat dessert or drink alcohol after bariatric surgery?  

Yes. Because your body will process and absorb foods differently after surgery, we recommend that you not eat foods high in sugar and fat immediately after surgery or drink alcohol for two years. But after a while, you can have a piece of cake at a wedding or a glass of wine for your anniversary. You’ll need to eat and drink these items in moderation, but you can have them for special occasions. This is also a good guideline for people who just want to live a healthier lifestyle.

If you have heard something fishy about bariatric surgery, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor. We’ve heard it all, and we won’t think your question is silly. If you’re considering bariatric surgery, it’s your right—and our job—to make sure you understand the ins and outs before you commit to preparing for and maintaining a healthier weight.

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