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Cosmetic surgery abroad: Be in the know before you go

Increasingly, our international serious injury solicitors are receiving enquiries from people who are travelling abroad for cosmetic surgery and in a recent article we considered the rise in medical tourism and the risks associated with going abroad for these procedures.

The heart-breaking reality is that with every call, we have a feeling of déjà vu. We often have a good idea of how the call will go, from how the surgery was booked, to the nature and method of communication with the clinic, to the process of consent to surgery and aftercare received.

Sadly, whilst these clients embarked on such procedures or treatments to make positive changes to the way they look or feel, the opposite has happened. They have been left seriously injured, often permanently, and deeply traumatised by the experience. 

Devastatingly, we also represent clients whose loved ones have died as a result of something going wrong during or as a result of their surgery.

In recent months, below are just some of the reasons people have contacted us following their surgery:

  • A procedure has been performed on them that they haven't consented to;
  • More has been removed or changed than they consented to and these changes are irreversible;
  • They have contracted a serious infection which has led to emergency treatment in the UK.

We know that a major reason for people travelling abroad is the cost; it's most often far cheaper to have surgery abroad than privately in the UK. Yes, all surgery carries risks but there can be greater risks when going abroad.  

With our experience in mind we're incredibly keen to share some simple, practical steps those who are considering undergoing cosmetic surgery abroad might wish to consider:

  • Research the procedure so that you know what’s involved and whether it’s right for you. Use a variety of sources to do this; don’t be tempted just to look at the clinic’s website or social media.
  • Do your research on the company you are intending to book with, the clinic they use and the surgeon.  Use internationally accredited clinics or hospitals if you can and verify the surgeon’s qualifications.
  • Discuss any planned procedures with your GP and/or specialist before booking any treatment, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions. If your GP or consultant advises against the surgery, then this is likely to be for a good reason.
  • Think about communication – do not assume that those treating you will be able to speak English. Ask if there is an interpreter service available before you book and follow up closer to the time of your surgery to ensure they will be present when you arrive.
  • Make sure you enquire with any prospective provider that they and their surgeons have insurance and that this will cover you should things not go to plan.
  • Consider taking out specific travel and/or medical insurance for the procedure and to cover any additional expenses should you need additional treatment for any reason. You should ensure that this policy covers elective medical procedures undertaken abroad and the cost of repatriation in case this situation arises.
  • A European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) does not cover the cost of planned treatments. These cards cover state healthcare, for emergency or necessary medical care in some countries, at a reduced cost or sometimes for free.  Also check the GOV.UK website for updated foreign travel guidance before you go.
  • During the booking process, the surgeon undertaking the procedure should be available to discuss the surgery with you. This is usually via telephone or Skype, but you should insist on a face-to-face consultation if possible. This consultation should provide a clear explanation of the planned treatment, including success/complication rates, potential risks and possible post-procedure problems.
  • Whilst arranging your surgery you may receive medical advice from an administrator, a travel agent, or member of a sales team, usually, or an exchange of messages on WhatsApp. You should take care to check that what you are being told is correct and that all relevant information has been passed to the surgeon for risk assessment and that, crucially, the medical advice you receive comes directly from your medical practitioner.
  • If you decide to go ahead, insist that a written contract from the clinic or hospital be provided. If you have booked via a third party this may come from them. This should set out what surgery will be undertaken, and what is included in the contract with regards to surgery, accommodation, aftercare and medications. It should also confirm the cost. This should be in English, so that you can understand it.
  • Once booked, ask for the consent forms to be sent to you well in advance of the procedure so that you have time and space to consider these, including the risks outlined, and ask any questions you may have before signing them. Also make sure that the forms are sent to you in English.
  • Do not assume that the surgeon or clinic has any knowledge of your medical history. Some clinics ask for this information on the forms provided but it is important to discuss your medical history with the surgeon if you feel that it is relevant to the procedure, or in general.

As international serious injury experts, these are just some of the steps we advise you take but of course, there are others.

Be aware that healthcare regulation is less strict in some places than it is in the UK and many countries have no legislation to protect patients if things go wrong. You should consider this when choosing a destination, as legal redress may be difficult. 

For example, treatment that may be considered below standard in the UK, may be considered to standard in the country where you have undergone the surgery and therefore a negligence case will be hard to prove. Also, it is often likely that legal proceedings would need to be brought in that country which will bring practical, legal and financial challenges.

Finally, remember: if you’re not completely happy, don’t go ahead. This is your body and your decision. If you do not feel that you have all of the information you need, take more time to look into it and consult a GP or other medical expert if necessary.

Find out more about how we help those affected by cosmetic surgery abroad gone wrong, at the dedicated section on our website.