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.