Cosmetic and Reconstructive Surgery

Any procedure performed to improve the appearance of an otherwise healthy individual is considered aesthetic or cosmetic surgery. With modern techniques, cosmetic improvements are possible for everything from an undesirable nose to breasts that a patient deems too small or large. Aesthetic plastic surgeons can nip and tuck a belly that’s a little too bulgy or a forehead that time has set into a permanent frown. Aesthetic plastic surgeons have no shortage of patients seeking such improvements. In 2015, nearly 16 million aesthetic procedures were performed in the US alone, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

Although millions are flocking to plastic surgeons in hopes of achieving an ideal appearance and the self-esteem that goes with it, not all plastic surgery is done for aesthetic or psychological reasons. Plastic surgeons also rebuild skin and muscle that have been damaged by injuries (such as auto accidents or burns), disease (such as breast or skin cancer), or an birth aberration (such as cleft lip and palate). Such reconstructive plastic surgery restores function as well as appearance. It can help people left impaired by birth defects, developmental abnormalities, traumas, infections, and a variety of diseases. In 2014, nearly 6 million reconstructive surgeries were performed in the US alone. Patients also flock to plastic surgery destinations such as Thailand and South Korea in the pursuit of surgically implemented physical enhancement.

Why It Works for Medical Travel

A number of factors contribute to the popularity of overseas destinations for plastic surgery patients. Most important is the reluctance of most health insurance companies and national health programs to cover the costs of elective procedures undertaken for aesthetic reasons. While the repair of a facial scar in a burn victim may be covered, an elective facelift is not. Patients must foot the entire bill. Since plastic surgery is significantly less expensive in most medical travel destinations than it is in the UK, US, and Western Europe, it’s often a good option for medical travel.

A second important factor is time for planning and consideration. For example, after a weight loss procedure, liposuction and a tummy tuck are best put off for a while to see how much the skin can retract naturally. After a burn heals, time may fade a scar sufficiently—or it may not—meaning scar revision can be considered a few months or years down the road. Thus, in many cases of aesthetic or reconstructive plastic surgery, the patient has time to weigh options and choose among alternatives, including service available in medical travel destinations.

Still another factor is the exceptionally high level of expertise available in some international centers. For example, the Craniofacial Center at Chang-Gung Memorial Hospital in Taoyuan, Taiwan is arguably one of the busiest in the world. Since 1976, the center has treated more 30,000 patients born with cleft lip and palate. Medical travelers from Asia and the Middle East seek out the services of Chang-Gung’s internationally renowned practitioners.

Finally, there is the “why not?” factor. A patient who travels overseas for one reason—perhaps a knee replacement or infertility treatment—decides to seek some aesthetic improvement at the same time. Most medical travelers in this category avoid the more serious surgical procedures such as tummy tucks and facelifts, treating themselves instead to such minimally invasive confidence boosters as dermabrasion or laser hair removal.

Where to Go for Treatment

When the rich and famous think of traveling for aesthetic surgery, they think of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro is generally acknowledged as the “World Capital of Plastic Surgery.” More plastic and cosmetic surgeries are performed in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro than anywhere else in the world. Although Brazil is known for its high-quality plastic surgery, its innovations in the field, and its surgical safety, it is not the cheapest place in the world to receive plastic surgery. Patients can, nonetheless, achieve a 30–40 percent savings over comparable costs in the US, and prices have been dropping of late. Two of the most famous facilities in Brazil are in the Ivo Pitanguy Clinic and the Hospital da Plastica, both in Rio. Both have been around for about 40 years, achieving high success rates and low infection rates that are envied around the world.

Costa Rica and Mexico also claim more than their fair share of plastic surgery destinations. The Rosenstock-Lieberman Center for Cosmetic Plastic Surgery, based in San Jose, Costa Rica, has been in operation since 1982. It offers everything from hair transplants to tummy tucks. The JCI-accredited Christus Muguerza Alta Especialidad Hospital in Monterrey, Mexico has two plastic surgery specialists who handle everything from breast augmentation to nose nips.

Thailand boasts a long history of cosmetic surgery services. While best-known for its transgender procedures, a full array of treatments are offered (although not normally advertised) by most of the leading international medical centers, such as Bumrungrad International and Bangkok General Hospital. Patients seeking cosmetic and aesthetic work flock to the resort island of Phuket, where a wide array of choice exists at the larger hospitals and specialty clinics.

Patients from the North Asia region head to South Korea for cosmetic work, while the UAE is gaining a solid foothold amongst Middle Eastern patients. One of the world's only JCI-accredited cosmetology clinics, The Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital, treats hundreds of international patients annually from its facility in Dubai Healthcare City.

Special Considerations

Prospective patients tend to take plastic surgery lightly, either ignoring or grossly underestimating its risks. In fact, any invasive procedure carries dangers ranging from minor discomforts to life-threatening complications, including pneumonia, stroke, heart attack, blood clots in the legs or lungs, and even death. Other possible surgical complications include fluid or blood accumulations beneath the incision, skin breakdown or separation, excessive bleeding, numbness or loss of sensation, and infection (with subsequent scarring). Plastic surgery patients at home or abroad do well to heed the warning of Dr. Richard D'Amico, the former president of the American Society for Plastic Surgery (ASPS). “The human body makes no distinction when the scalpel hits," he told Forbes magazine. "The [only] difference with elective cosmetic surgeries is that patients generally start out being healthy."

Planning Tips

After a facelift, you should stay out of the sun and give yourself time for the swelling to go down. After body contouring or facial enhancement, incisions need time to heal, and you don’t want to go home looking gorgeous until you are ... well, looking gorgeous. That’s where recovery accommodations and medical spas come in. Because patients recovering from plastic surgery need time to feel and look their best—and because there is not one better to recover with than someone who’s going through the same discomfort you are—recovery accommodations have sprouted up near many plastic surgery clinics. At these resorts, patients take a relaxing vacation, enjoy some rejuvenating spa treatments, and perhaps play a bit of bridge or chess with some fellow nip-and-tuckers. Some such facilities even provide nursing staff to change dressing and monitor healing. Ask your doctor, hospital, or medical travel agent if a recovery accommodation might well serve your needs. Some clinics and hotels offer package deals, which save their clients time, money, and anxiety.

Home-Again Tips

Although a number of aesthetic and reconstructive procedures are performed on an outpatient basis or require at most a night or two in the hospital, medical travelers should not be too quick to hop a plane for home. Patients experience some pain during recovery, and pain medications are typically prescribed. Medical travelers who undergo any other invasive procedure should not consider returning home until their doctor gives them the okay to travel.

A note of caution: leisure travelers undergoing cosmetic surgery will be advised by any competent surgeon to stay out of the sun until wounds are completely healed, as the sun's rays can cause scars to discolor and tissue to thicken.

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Last updated on 20 August 2016