Risks of Medical Tourism for Bariatric Surgery

Given the virtual impossibility to access timely bariatric care in Canada, it is no wonder that many patients, who can scrape together the money, are heading South of the border or even to exotic destinations like Mexico or India for bariatric surgery (I guess this is Canada’s version of a two-tier healthcare system).

Knowing that there are plenty of good and experienced bariatric surgeons in other countries, this may not really be a problem – that is, until things go wrong: and then things can very quickly get very ugly.

In a paper just released online in The American Journal of Surgery, my surgical colleagues and I report on our experience with 10 Albertans, who decided to bypass the long waiting times and ended up running into considerable problems upon their return (you can also read the story in yesterday’s Edmonton Journal).

Not only did they experience significant medical emergencies, but fixing their problems (where possible) ended up costing the public health care system over $160,000, money that could have been better used to provide proper bariatric care to some of the several 1000 patients on our waiting list.

Again, the problem here is not that there are no good surgeons outside Canada – the problem is that bariatric surgery is far more than about simply finding someone who knows how to operate and fixing a date for the operation. As I’ve blogged before bariatric surgery is far more than just about surgery.

More importantly, when things occasionally go wrong (as they will even with the most experienced surgeons), you definitely want to have your surgeon and the medical team close to home and not thousands of kilometers away in a foreign country.

So how common are serious complications from medical tourism for bariatric surgery? As the province does not keep exact tabs on how many people leave the province for surgery, we have no way of knowing. Are the cases we saw 10 out of 100, 10 out of 1000, or even only 10 out of 10,000 – no one knows.

The bottom line is that while medical tourism may work great for some health problems, bariatric surgery is probably not one of them.

If you have any experience with patients, family or friends who have had to travel out of your province or even abroad for bariatric surgery, I’d love to hear the story – the good, the bad, or the ugly!

Edmonton, Alberta