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Special Report: Health Care Abroad

Traveling for Elective Surgery

For years, Jane Shealy, 45, had been thinking about liposuction. "I wanted to be able to buy jeans and not need to have them professionally altered," she says, noting that her size 12 legs were out of proportion to her size 6 waist. Still, the $11,000 to $14,000 she'd been quoted was just too high.

Then Shealy learned about a South African company, Surgeon & Safari, that promises top-notch plastic surgery at low rates, capped by a safari. The price for liposuction: $2,800. She booked a ticket to Johannesburg.

After the procedure, Shealy spent a night at a clinic and three days recuperating at a luxury hotel. Following a post-operative visit, her doctor said she was clear for a safari in Kenya. "It was more like a vacation," says Shealy. "I could get my mind off any discomfort I felt."

More and more countries like South Africa, Thailand, Mexico, and India are marketing themselves as "medical tourism" destinations for procedures such as plastic surgery, lasik eye surgery, and dental work. Surgeon & Safari, which serves about 30 clients per month, is small compared with Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, a pioneer in medical tourism that treated 264,000 international patients from 144 countries last year. Bumrungrad is internationally accredited, and a third of its 600 doctors are trained overseas and/or board-certified. "We knew that we'd have to instill confidence in consumers," says Ruben Toral, the hospital's director of international operations.

If you're considering surgery abroad, be sure to evaluate the facility and the surgeon. Ask whether the doctor has completed specialty training and is licensed to perform procedures both in private practice and at a public hospital. A trained anesthesiologist is equally important. Membership in either the International Confederation for Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery or the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery is a good benchmark for plastic surgeons. If possible, use an internationally accredited hospital (see "Medical Standards," above) as well as one that has an intensive-care unit. And keep in mind that, should something go wrong, chances are you won't have legal recourse in the United States.

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