Inexpensive cosmetic surgery abroad is soaring, but is it worth the risks?

I’ve been amazed watching the skyrocketing rates of women, especially women of color, rushing across the border to achieve the particular look they desire. The stories I have been hearing lately about women traveling outside of the country to for low-cost cosmetic procedures resulting in permanent injuries – and death – has me asking: Is surgery abroad really worth it?

Patients traveling outside of the United States in pursuit of medical surgery is far from a new occurrence, but its popularity has exploded in recent years. The term for jet-setting for health-related procedures outside the country is “medical tourism,” and an estimated 15 million U.S. citizens are believed to travel to another country for this reason. About half of the procedures are cosmetic.

While this is understandable, not all surgeries performed outside of the U.S. are approved stateside. I find this alarming when coupled with several studies which have indicated surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures have jumped significantly in the Black community.

But wait, some people may ask, what about that phrase “Black don’t crack?” While it’s true that dark skin may have some natural protective factors, and people of color seem to age like fine wine, it hasn’t stopped men and women of color who want effective — and affordable — options to combat aging and enhance their physical appearances. 

In fact, men and women of color are attracted to one of the main selling points of traveling abroad: low cost. Studies by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) Show in Mexico dental procedures are 80% lower than in the U.S., tummy tucks were 60-70% lower, IVF and breast augmentation were 60% lower.

I understand the importance of balancing our checkbooks, but before anyone dives under the knife, there are many questions that should be asked and risks to consider, no matter how cheap the procedure. Remember, any invasive procedure – inside or outside the U.S. – carries risks.

Candidates exploring surgery outside the country should ask: Is the doctor experienced enough? What are their credentials and certifications? What should I expect during my surgical pre-screening? How thorough should my doctor be? What should I know about aftercare? 

While studies have shown the primary concern of Americans considering medical and surgical treatment outside the country is the quality of the care they will receive, the risks of undergoing the procedure in the country they are traveling to doesn’t rank high of a concern, but perhaps it should be. There have been multiple reports of about women and men who have died during surgeries abroad, not only Mexico, but the Dominican Republic, Turkey and China. There have also been deaths reported due to complications after surgery; Black women are not immune to this. There aren’t many statistics on mortality rates of Americans traveling overseas for cosmetic procedures, but there have been a number of news reports in recent years of Black patients, particularly women, dying as a result of complications from the surgeries.

Black patients accounted for about 8% of all plastic surgeries in 2013, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgery. The organization found that cosmetic surgery procedures among Black patients increased from 768,512 in 2015 to 1.7 million in 2020. This stat only accounts  for the surgeries in the United States. If factoring in surgeries done abroad, this number increases by half.

Lower cost surgeries and traveling can come dangers, but thousands of people take the risk every year anyway, without knowing whether the physicians who will treat them are reputable or if the location will be safe. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are many qualified and talented doctors and medical professionals in Mexico and beyond. In fact, many are more reputable than their fellow physicians in the U.S. Studies have shown that some doctors in the medical district of Mexico have undergone training and received their education in the United States, but choose to practice in Mexico. However, the danger factor of traveling to Mexico can’t be ignored — especially in light of recent travel warnings. Unfortunately, it’s something four Black Americans fell victim to earlier this month when a Black woman reportedly traveled with three men to Mexico for a tummy tuck. The recent tragedy only highlights the dangers in some countries yet patients ignore and are willing to risk their lives due to higher health care costs that are consistently increasing, and for some, lack of insurance in the U.S.

I don’t expect this trend to swing backwards anytime soon – and neither do the experts. Patient traveling outside of the U.S. to for medical surgery is expected to grow — and surely, Black women and men will be among them. The pursuit of the fountain of youth seems virtually endless in today’s beauty-driven society but it’s no excuse to take short cuts and do our due diligence. Otherwise, you may get what you paid for.

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