Doctors warn over complications linked to 'boom' in surgical tourism

Leading doctors have raised concerns over complications linked to a "boom" in surgical tourism.

A rising number of people are travelling abroad for procedures including weight loss surgery and hair implants, but may not be receiving care at the same standard they would expect in the UK, according to the chair of the British Medical Association's (BMA) Board of Science.

David Strain, a professor of cardiometabolic health, said medics in the UK are increasingly seeing patients with complications from surgeries, including infections.

Foreign Office travel advice states that the standard of medical facilities and available treatments can "vary widely globally" - and highlights how six British nationals died in Turkey in 2023 following medical procedures.

Medics at the BMA's national annual meeting in Belfast heard there has been a "boom" in surgical tourism, which is "leading to a rise in serious post-surgery complications and deaths".

Delegates passed a motion expressing concern over patients who need emergency surgery when they return to the UK.

The motion also called for an increase in weight management services "partially" funded by a rise in the sugar tax.

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Dr Samuel Parker from the BMA said: "Several overseas clinics provide bariatric surgery [weight loss surgery] far cheaper than the cost of disposable instruments used in the NHS. Follow-up is typically non-existent.

"[There are] reports of shortcuts, inappropriate use of disposable instruments and patients suffering serious complications necessitating emergency NHS treatment."

On the sugar tax, he added: "The sugary drinks tax in England was followed by a drop in a number of cases of obesity among older primary school children. It is estimated that 5,000 cases of obesity per year may be prevented in Year 6 girls alone."

'Picking up the pieces'

Prof Strain said: "Surgical tourism has been a problem for some time, people disappear off to notably South Africa and Turkey, but there's many other places to disappear too.

"And complications can arise late from any procedure, not just obesity surgery, even just something as simple as hair implants that people travel for.

"You can get infections and the problem is people come back and they are asking the NHS to pick up the pieces of procedures that were done with less standards that we would normally apply in the UK.

"Health tourism is on the rise as people are slightly more affluent, international travel is easier than it was, organising these things are easier thanks to the internet."

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The increase in anaesthetic procedures abroad has been spurred on by a "social media nation" where people feel the need to present themselves in a certain way, Prof Strain added.

"What we can never guarantee is the surgical standards in different countries, and even the equipment that may be used, and that's where the risk comes," he said.

Prof Strain added: "Anything that puts extra burden - if [a person] fills a hospital bed, for example, with an infection, there are only so many beds, and a hospital bed full of somebody who's gone for a procedure [abroad] that needs to be fixed, means that an elective procedure is likely to get cancelled.

"In an already overburdened health service then, health tourism can cause significant issues."