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Doctors warn Kiwis of medical tourism risks

February 21, 2015

Kiwis are putting their vision on the line by going overseas for cheap eye operations, doctors warn.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists has issued a strong warning of the dangers as medical tourism grows in popularity.

Wellington eye surgeon Andrew Logan said yesterday he saw about two patients a year who ran into trouble after eye surgery overseas, usually in southeast Asia. Some suffered serious complications, including one patient who needed a cornea transplant after botched surgery in Thailand.

"They just think 'I'll have a week on the beach at Phuket and get my eyes done'."

The standard of medical equipment in some countries was lower than in New Zealand and if post-surgery complications occurred, there was little a patient could do.

Patients who came through Logan's door typically had their vision over-corrected or under-corrected, meaning they needed to pay for a repeat operation here.

Auckland ophthalmologist Dr Sue Ormonde had heard about patients who went overseas for laser surgery that had gone wrong. One major drawback was complications on return, she said.

The patient would have no access to the person overseas who performed the surgery and a New Zealand ophthalmologist would be left to fix it up.

"Patients underestimate the importance of after-surgery follow-up and the complications that come after surgery."

Studies showed there were more than 10 million medical tourists worldwide in 2014, creating an industry worth over $50 billion. About 25,000 Australians travelled for cosmetic services and a few thousand New Zealanders were also lured by cheap deals, the college said.

In Wellington, laser eye surgery costs about $3000 per eye, whereas some companies in Thailand offer the same procedure for as little as $1200.

College fellows in New Zealand were unavailable for comment but an Australian-based spokesman said not many cases came to light in New Zealand because patients were more likely to report problems to their doctor with minor, rather than major, complications.

Canterbury University professor Michael Hall, who edited the book Medical Tourism: The ethics, regulation and marketing of health mobility, said the lack of accurate data on the global flow of medical tourists, along with promotion by some governments, created substantial challenges.

More New Zealanders were travelling for medical tourism to southeast Asia and India. The potential for bringing superbugs home, as had occurred in England, was a concern, he said.

If patients with botch-ups from overseas required further medical treatment at home in a public hospital, the New Zealand taxpayer would end up footing the bill.

An Accident Compensation Corporation spokeswoman was unaware of any recent treatment injury claims from eye surgery performed overseas, but statistics were unavailable yesterday.

College president Dr Bradley Horsburgh said the growing popularity of medical tourism raised serious questions around safety standards, patient care, legal recourse and insurance.

Combining a medical operation with a holiday was potentially dangerous as there might not be continuity of care and consumers were not best equipped to make treatment decisions, he said.

"You can't undergo an operation and then decide a day's rest is appropriate before you start exercising or travelling again."

Websites with gushing testimonials about the quality of service provided could not be verified, he said. Some nations promoted packages, such as resort holidays combined with discounted medical or cosmetic procedures, sometimes done pool-side. Laser and cataract surgery were two of the most common eye operations, marketed to consumers across the globe as "affordable", compared to what was available in their country.

Medical Council of New Zealand chairman Andrew Connolly said there were concerns about the training of doctors who performed operations in theatres which might fail to meet New Zealand's rigorous standards.

Infections here also differed from those in foreign hospitals, which created the risk of superbugs being brought back to New Zealand.

The public needed to be aware of possible risks, and cost should not be the only consideration.


by COLLETTE DEVLIN AND BEN HEATHER, reproduced from The Dominion Post

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