Sep 29

Chapter 1 Page 7 | 100,000 Fellow Travelers — or More

(Author’s Note: The reader should be aware that the following numbers were calculated for 2004-2005. I do not claim they are representative for any other time. If I had to guess right now, in 2009, a time of global recession, I’d say that cosmetic surgery abroad might well be in the doldrums, just as it is within individual countries such as the United States.)

Today, with access to the Internet, the millions of prospective and actual cosmetic surgery patients in the United States can be remarkably well-informed before ever setting foot in a surgeon’s office. They are familiar with the procedures;  they’ve seen before-and-after pictures. The Internet and television have supplemented traditional word-of-mouth marketing of cosmetic surgery, and many U.S. doctors build their practices substantially through their Web sites.

But the Internet also opened up this vast U.S. market to aesthetic and cosmetic surgeons abroad.  And in increasing numbers, they are going after the U.S. market directly.

How many people from the United States are actually going south of the border (or anywhere else) to save money on liposuction, face-lifts, tummy tucks and the like? In recent news stories, the conventional line, almost to the point of cliche, was  “no one knows.” I have been told by several U.S. surgeons who cared to speculate that the numbers are negligible;  however, these have been the same surgeons who are most concerned about (or opposed to) people going overseas for surgery. Some doctors and journalists have guessed it to be in the  “low thousands”.

This is almost certainly bad guesswork, though it all depends on who and how one wishes to count.  Consider, and do the arithmetic along with me: Costa Rica, the “Beverly Hills of Central America,”  where there are perhaps 35 to 40 cosmetic surgeons who work primarily on patients from the United States. The best and most experienced are busy constantly, and some will do several surgeries a day. These board-certified surgeons each handle as many as 40 to 50 U.S. patients a month.  Even accounting for slackers, one cannot put the annual total at less than 5,000. It could be double that or more.  A prominent surgeon I know puts the total at more than 20,000.

One can speculate conservatively that a similar number of people visit Costa Rica for just dental work, as I did. There are a lot more dentists,  according to one surgeon, and there is some overlap, as many patients will have both plastic surgery and dental work done on the same trip. Many procedures are also done by non- board- certified physicians and surgeons.

Brazil,  a mecca for cosmetic and plastic surgery with a reputation that precedes and, in much of the world, overshadows that of Beverly Hills:  There are more than a million Brazilian-Americans in the United States. The population has tripled since 1990.  Perhaps there was a time when only hundreds or a few thousand U.S. residents traveled to Brazil for cosmetic surgery annually, but that time is past. Brazilian surgeons are polishing their English and their Web sites and building new facilities. Count another 10,000 and growing.

Mexico, the most telling of all: There, more than 900 board-certified plastic and cosmetic surgeons ply their trade. Despite a stream of cautionary and negative news reports about the practice through the years, undoubtedly far more U.S. residents visit Mexico for cosmetic and plastic surgery than any other country. There are more than 30 million Mexican-Americans in the United States, as a receptive base market. Mexican surgeons advertise in the United States and even visit our country regularly on marketing expeditions, mostly in the South and West. It is not reasonable to guess that “a few thousand” U.S. residents head for the border annually for cosmetic surgery. I venture an educated estimate that the number is at least 40,000.

Tourists seeking liposuction or face-lifts do not declare their intentions at the border, and I have run across only a few doctors and surgeons abroad who can give a good estimate of the number of U.S. patients they see themselves, let alone an aggregate number for their country.  But the number for Mexico adds up quickly. I’m told that perhaps half the doctors do little or no work on patients from the United States.  Still, if the other half averages two U.S. patients per week, the total would come to nearly 50,000. This does not account for cosmetic dental work or the number of patients who get cosmetic surgery from non-board-certified physicians.  It also ignores the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens living in Mexico, perhaps as many as a million, who presumably are likely to seek medical care, including cosmetic surgery, from local doctors and surgeons.

The Dominican Republic, another medical tourism destination that has been vilified, more often than not, in the popular media in the United States:  There are approximately 60 busy cosmetic surgeons in and around the capitol, Santo Domingo. For many of them, more than half of their patients come from abroad, mostly from the United States. Moreover, there are more than a million Dominicans residing in the United States, at least 600,000 of them in the New York City metropolitan area alone.

Dominican surgeons travel to New York regularly to make presentations to prospective patients.  The prices of even the best, most-qualified surgeons in the Dominican Republic for common surgical procedures are 50 to 70 percent less than what is charged in the United States. Business is booming. It is not unreasonable to guess that board-certified plastic surgeons in the Dominican Republic, plus other doctors and surgeons who perform cosmetic procedures,  see at least 10,000 patients a year from the United States, not including dental patients.

The rest of the world: A “few thousand”  more from the United States travel to other Central and South American countries, all of which are represented in the United States by growing immigrant groups. Destinations in the Far East are growing in popularity;  Eastern Europe and South Africa are more popular with western Europeans as places to go than they are with Americans, but surgeons in those countries have only just begun competing for the huge North American market.  And Malaysia and Thailand are both increasingly popular destinations. Add another 10,000 to 20,000 to the total, easily.

I am comfortable, then, in conservatively guesstimating the number of U.S. citizens currently traveling abroad for plastic and cosmetic surgery at something in the high five figures, approaching 100,000. This would be about 5 percent of the 1.7 million estimated cosmetic surgeries performed in the United States.

I don’t have a similar feel for the total number of U.S. patients who go abroad for dental care, other than to suspect that it is similarly substantial. Certainly, at least a dozen major dental practices in Costa Rica thrive on serving the U.S. market.

An assertion that the number of U.S. residents, mostly women, who would travel abroad for cosmetic surgery might be rapidly approaching 100,000 annually, or even higher, will no doubt nettle some doctors and surgeons in the United States. Yet how are we to get a grip on the phenomenon (or “problem,”  if that is your point of view) if we do not attempt to get a handle on its size?  Until the last decade, the story of what is now called medical tourism was mostly about people in other countries coming to the United States for sophisticated medical treatment, if they could afford it. And the traffic has by no means completely reversed.  Many thousands of people still come to the United States for health care, including cosmetic surgery. Almost certainly, far more money comes into the United States from abroad to pay for medical care than leaves the country.

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