Few people live a full lifespan without seeing an ophthalmologist—a specialist in disorders of the eye. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), in the US alone, six out of every ten adults need some type of corrective eyewear. More than 25 million people wear contact lenses.

Thirty million Americans over the age of 40 are myopic (nearsighted), and no one after 45—says the AAO—escapes presbyopia (diminished ability to focus on nearby objects). Nearly half of those who live to age 80 will experience cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye that prevents light from forming a clear image on the retina. About 5 percent of the population—that’s about 340 million people worldwide—suffer from chronic dry eye.

Thankfully for most of us, a good pair of glasses or contact lenses corrects the irregular shape of the cornea or loss of flexibility in the lens that causes the loss of visual acuity. But for many people, threats to visual health are more severe.

Glaucoma refers to any of several diseases that damage the optic nerve, which carries visual impulses from the eye to the brain. In many, patients, glaucoma results from a build-up of fluid pressure of the aqueous humor inside the eye. Untreated glaucoma can result in blindness, as can macular degeneration (a breakdown of the area of the retina that lies near the optic nerve at the back of the eye). Uveitis (inflammation inside the eye caused by an immune disorder or an infection) is another significant cause of blindness.

Ophthalmologists have developed a variety of medications, procedures, and surgeries to treat everything from “lazy eye” to glaucoma. In recent years, lasers have revolutionized the practice of ophthalmology, and the many types of laser surgery are quick, effective, and painless.

The popular acronyms LASIK and LASEK describe procedures that use lasers to correct refractive errors. Correcting visual acuity isn’t the only use for lasers. Nonrefractive conditions, such as a tear in the retina, may also be addressed with laser surgery, as can several types of glaucoma.

Why It Works for Medical Travel

As with dentistry, many health insurance plans do not include vision coverage, which must be purchased as an expensive—and often unrewarding—supplemental policy. Crossing borders to save 40-60% on eye care is becoming an option for those increasingly squeezed by the high costs of healthcare.

Unless you suffer an injury to the eye that requires immediate treatment, you probably aren’t facing an ophthalmologic emergency. Thus, most eye patients have time to obtain a second opinion, weigh their treatment options, evaluate their doctor’s training and experience, and compare costs. They also have time to research clinics and physicians overseas to look for the highest quality treatment at an affordable price.

Treatment schedules can be coordinated with leisure travel plans, and some eye patients even find ways to combine business and medical travel. The Pretoria Eye Institute in South Africa offers one such opportunity. As it's located close to several international embassies, savvy diplomatic travelers schedule eye exams, LASIK treatments, and other procedures while there on assignment.

Similarly, the JCI-accredited Dunya Eye Hospital in Istanbul offers world-class full service vision care in one of the world’s great tourist destinations.

While recovery is quick after many eye surgeries, a few days or weeks of rest are often recommended. A relaxing post-procedure vacation at a nearby resort or wellness facility could be just what the doctor ordered. It might even be tax-deductible!

Special Considerations

While any modern eye surgeries promise a fast recovery with minimal discomfort, they are invasive procedures nonetheless, and certain precautions are necessary. Your doctor may prescribe pain relievers to be taken for a day or two following surgery. Some procedures require that soft contact lens be worn for a while. Eye drops may be required for a period of time or indefinitely, depending on the patient. Other possible side effects include:

  • dry eyes, irritation, redness, or soreness (for a few days or weeks)
  • eye discomfort (especially on the first day after surgery)
  • blurry vision
  • haziness of the cornea
  • glare or halos around light around objects
  • overcorrected or undercorrected vision
  • inability to wear contact lenses in the future
  • loss of the corneal flap, which may lead to a cornea transplant
  • scarring
  • infection
  • loss of vision

Planning Tips

Most refractive eye surgeries are performed on an outpatient basis, and many are completed within an hour or two—but that doesn’t mean they are simple and just anyone can do them. You should have ophthalmologic surgeries and procedures performed only by certified specialists who can produce evidence of excellent training and experience.

Be sure you look carefully at any eye specialist’s credentials, and don’t be afraid to ask for information on your potential doctor’s record of accomplishment. Choose an eye doctor who has proven his or her ability, and ask for statistics on your particular procedure. It’s true that doctors have to practice, but you don’t want to be their first patient.

Your doctor has responsibilities and so do you. Make sure you plan wisely and follow your instructions to the letter. For example, your doctor may advise you to stop wearing your contact lenses for a week or two prior to a cataract surgery—you’ll want to know that in advance of an expensive trip! Pre-surgery, women should not wear eye makeup.

Home-Again Tips

Continuity of care is important to all medical travelers—eye patients are no exception. Your local ophthalmologist needs full information about your travel plans and necessary your overseas doctor and your local specialist can attend to your followup care. Be sure to return home with all medical records in hand, including consultations, x-rays, prescriptions and directions for post-treatment care. Your hometown specialist will be much more comfortable providing treatment with a road map to follow.

Regardless the treatment you had overseas, you’ll need to schedule regular post-procedure visits to your hometown eye specialist after your return. Visual acuity often worsens over time, and conditions such as glaucoma can creep up silently, without symptoms. Preserve your vision—and your investment—with regular visits to your ophthalmologist.

Top Facilities

Selected by Patients Beyond Borders' editors, the list below reflects a small group of facilities known for exceptional work in this specialty.

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Last updated on 25 May 2017