We received lots of calls and messages regarding a much publicised Coroners inquest into the death of a 31 year old Australian man following ‘marathon’ cosmetic surgical procedures in Malaysia.
People were interested in our view on what had happened, why it happened and what lessons we can take away from these tragic events.

What Happened?

If you haven’t seen the media coverage (here), a brief summary is that a 31 year old from Melbourne, Australia, paid more than USD$27,000 (AUD$35,000) to a medical travel agency for a cosmetic (plastic) surgery package in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2014. Two marathon surgeries at the clinic were undertaken in the space of five days including a 360 degree ‘tummy’ tuck (this surgery alone lasted between 8 to 10 hours), extensive liposuction, an upper eye lift, a chin tuck, a thigh lift, chest sculpting and lip filler.
The gentlemen flew home 5 days after surgery and less than 24 hours after returning home was found dead in his bedroom. So, let’s look at all the pieces.

Medical Travel Agents/Packages

Like going to see a financial advisor that works for a bank or walking into a Ford motor car dealer, when you choose to go a ‘tied’ service provider, your choices are always going to be more limited than they otherwise might be.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily – it just means that there is one more element on which you need to conduct detailed research. In addition to the usual information that you must seek out before selecting any doctor or clinic, you are also going to need to know things like: How and why did the Travel Agent select the doctor/clinic with which they have a relationship? Is there a commission being paid? What if you want to select an alternative clinic/doctor?
If the travel agent can demonstrate a sound basis and evidence for the selection of the medical service providers, then a medical travel agent can be a good option for many people.

Treatment Country, Facility & Doctor

It is not accurate to make generalisations about most countries health care providers; both the facilities and medico’s. There are some excellent clinics and surgeons in countries such as Malaysia and there are some terrible clinics and practices in places such as Australia and the USA. Of course the reverse is true as well!
Different countries do have different standards of care. Although there are international standards, if the clinic or hospital at which you are having treatment does not have third party accreditation then you will have to do the research leg work yourself. In the absence of accreditation, find out how the processes and procedures of the clinic you are considering compare to the best practice guidelines of a jurisdiction you would regard as providing care of the quality that you would like to receive.
Almost 1 million people a year choose to travel to Malaysia to seek medical treatment. In this case, the surgeon who carried out the procedures gained his medical degree in 1988 from the University of Melbourne (Australia) and his post graduate degree from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh (Scotland). On paper, his credentials are excellent from both a qualification and experience perspective.

What you need to know:

  • Research is key. There are many very well qualified surgeons and well run clinics and hospitals all around the world – most likely including in your home town. Take the time to understand the qualifications, experience and patient outcomes achieved by your proposed doctor – and very importantly – the practices and procedures of any clinic that you are considering using and compare them to other clinics around the world.
  • This case highlights the importance of looking very carefully into all of the components, elements and steps involved in a surgical procedure from the time you first start your research into doctors, clinics, hotels, dentists, hospitals and airlines until possibly months later when you are fully recovered.
  • Do not be afraid to ask around and receive several opinions on a surgical plan and a potential post-operative care plan. Always get a second opinion! Either in your own country and/or the country you will be treated in. Doctors are human and different doctors will have different views. Conservative is good when it comes to surgery!
  • Get to know the surgeon, meet with him/her prior to any surgery and depending on the degree of surgery being undertaken, more than one meeting may be necessary.
  • It is rarely a good idea to undertake a large amount of extensive procedures in a short period of time.
  • Post-operative care is critical. Has the post-op program been adequately explained, does the surgeon stay actively involved in the post-operative care program? Compare post-op programs of several surgeons/clinics and ensure that you can access, read and understand the agreements or paperwork involved prior to the day of surgery to understand exactly what standards of care the clinic is providing you.
  • If you are traveling overseas for surgery, then consider taking a companion with you, organise a doctor in your home country (there are many Skype services available these days) to have daily reviews with or at the very least have a trusted person back home ready to deal with doctors, clinics, hotels, airlines and any other needs that you have (in case you are not in a condition to).
  • Inevitably, if you are traveling for surgery you will spend more time in a hotel room in your rest and recuperation phase than in the clinic. Where will you stay? Does the hotel have the capability to access a doctor and recognise you as a medical traveler who may have specific needs that they can assist you with?
  • How will you get home? Airlines have strict protocols regarding medical travel and you should understand the timelines and protocols that apply from airline to airline and their abilities to assist a medical traveler (including any assistance you may need at the airport). Of course, you should always fully disclose the details of your condition to the airlines.
  • Are you covered by Insurance? If you are researching the insurance options available to you (as an individual or group) and you have travel insurance, you should assess the individual cover provided as you may in fact not be covered for medical travel. If you are not, there are specialist insurance products available on the market that cater to not only medical travel but also medical complications and travel accident benefits for you in your specific global destination.

The bottom line

There is no such thing as a simple surgical procedure.
Each person is different and needs to be aware that surgery always has risks attached no matter where you undertake it and that there are additional considerations if you plan to travel for surgery. Manage and understand your own risks by researching adequately and make an informed decision!

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