Australia is losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year to countries such as Germany, India and Thailand which are aggressively targeting the global medical tourism market.
Estimates of the number of people seeking medical treatment overseas every year varies dramatically but 1.6 million Americans alone were expected to have taken such trips, last year.
A report commissioned by Australia’s Federal Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism in 2011, by Deloitte Access Economics, identified cosmetic surgery as an area Australia could excel in. But so far the traffic is mostly one way, with many Australians choosing Thailand or Malaysia for their surgery.
Money from cosmetic surgery tourism has flowed to one sector in Australia – the agents who organise the package tours. Many of them are women who themselves have travelled overseas for cosmetic surgery, says University of Technology, Sydney ethnographer Dr Meredith Jones.
The agencies book surgeons for clients and organise everything from flights and accommodation to shopping and sight-seeing trips.
Clients vary, says Daniela Pratico, director of Sydney company Medi Makeovers, which offers cosmetic surgery and dental “getaways” to Thailand.
There are 20 to 25-year-old women travelling in groups and having breast augmentation, 25 to 40-year-old mothers undergoing tummy tucks and breast lifts (“mummy makeovers”), and facelifts for those aged over 45.
Originally a beauty therapist, Ms Pratico started Medi Makeovers seven years ago.
“I looked at how it was being arranged and thought I could do better,” she says.
“In Australia we get a lot of backlash about people going overseas for surgery, so I have to be extremely careful about [which overseas surgeons and hospitals] I’m presenting to the client,” she says.
The president of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, Associate Professor Rodney Cooter, says there are risks involved with travelling overseas for surgery.
“Complications can occur even with the best surgery,” says Dr Cooter. “Recuperation can take a long time. We monitor some patients for 18 months after surgery.”
Dr Cooter acknowledges complications can arise from surgery conducted anywhere but says having it done in Australia is the safest option.
Understandably, Australian surgeons aren’t happy with cosmetic surgery tourism, says Dr Jones.
“They like to contribute to scare campaigns about cosmetic surgery abroad … What they fail to mention, however, is they are also constantly fixing up botched jobs done by each other,” she says.
“Statistics are not recorded but I strongly suspect the possibility of cosmetic surgery ‘gone wrong’ is just as likely whether you have it in Sydney or in Bangkok.”
* This story written and produced by the University of Technology, Sydney, for Brink, a publication distributed monthly in The Sydney Morning Herald.