ED Docs Are Cleaning Up the Messes of Medical Tourism

Donavyn Coffey

August 11, 2021

It was a typical, busy evening shift in the emergency department (ED) when Steve Carroll, DO, an emergency medicine physician in the Philadelphia area, noticed an odd listing on the tracking board. In the waiting room, there was someone whose chief complaint was that she needed to have surgical drains pulled.

According to the woman's chart, she'd undergone liposuction in Miami a week before. She came bearing a letter from her surgeon to an ED physician with specific instructions on when and how to remove the drains. The surgeon had effectively relinquished all follow-up care to the woman's local ED.

Carroll searched the name of her surgeon and found that his site "specifically advertised medical tourism," Carroll said. The site allured patients with the idea of recovering by the beach and that a local nurse would come to their room every day.

But when Carroll told the patient that her surgeon should be the one who removes the drains, she became concerned. She didn't know that her surgeon wasn't providing the standard of care, he said. Somewhat appalled that a board-certified plastic surgeon would place the burden of follow-up care on an ED doctor hundreds of miles away, Carroll posted the case to Twitter and several Facebook groups.

"Yes I could refuse to take [the drains] out but that's not patient-centered care," Carroll wrote in a Twitter thread. "It's unfairly shifting routine outpatient surgical followup (and liability) onto me and extra cost to [the patient]." Comments from ED physicians and sympathetic surgeons across the country flowed in. Carroll quickly realized his situation was part of a much larger problem than he'd thought.

Carroll's patient told him that the Miami surgery cost less than undergoing the surgery locally; that's why she'd made the trip. She's not alone. Traveling to get the lowest price for a plastic surgery procedure has been a rising phenomenon since the early 2000s, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). Many countries are actively fostering their medical tourism industries, as are states such as Florida.

People have long traveled to get the best medical care. But "medical tourism is completely different," said Alan Matarasso, MD, FACS, a Manhattan-based plastic surgeon and member of the ASPS Executive Committee. "People [are] traveling to get a simultaneous vacation or lower cost," he said.

Choosing facilities on the basis of these criteria comes with myriad problems, and the quality of medical care may be lower. It's difficult to verify the credentials of the surgeons, anesthesiologists, and facilities involved. Medical records can be in a different language, and traveling immediately after surgery increases the risk for pulmonary embolism and death, not to mention the added complications of traveling and being a surgical patient during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Typically, surgeons are protective of their patients. But Murtaza Akhter, MD, an emergency medicine physician based in Miami, says it's the opposite with the medical tourism surgeons whose patients regularly end up in his ED. "There's almost no ownership," he said. "Every time, [the patients] say, 'My doctor isn't responding,' or they said go to the ER." And that's before they've even made it out of Miami.

The most common cosmetic surgery complications Akhter sees occur in patients who've undergone so-called Brazilian butt lifts. They show up in his ED face down, suffering from severe blood loss. He has them undergo a transfusion and maybe some imaging, but if they need a higher degree of care, they have to be transferred. "There's a reason it's cheaper," he said.

Medical tourism mishaps are such a regular occurrence in Miami that no one flinches when the patients show up in the ED, Akhter said. He had begun to think he was overreacting to the problem until he saw Carroll's Twitter thread.

"Since it's daily, I just thought maybe I had gone crazy and that it's considered normal for plastic surgeons to do this. Thanks for making me feel sane again," Akhter tweeted in a reply to Carroll.

There are no reliable data as to of how often or where such surgeries are occurring or of patients' outcomes. But Nicholas Genes, MD, an ED physician in Manhattan, says he sees far more postsurgical patients who traveled for their procedures than ones who underwent surgery locally. He can't say for certain whether that's because procedures performed by doctors in New York City have fewer complications or the physicians just handle postprocedure problems themselves.

In a 2021 systematic review of aesthetic breast surgeries performed through medical tourism, researchers found that of 171 patients who traveled for surgery, 88 (51%) had a total of 106 complications that required returning to the operating room and undergoing general anesthesia. They also found that 39% of breast augmentation implant surgeries required either a unilateral or bilateral explantation procedure after patients returned home.

The rate of complications was higher than the study authors had expected. "These are totally elective procedures," Matarasso said. "They should be optimized." And high rates of complications come with hefty price tags.

The cost of managing these complications, which falls to the home healthcare system or the patient themselves, can range from $5500 (determined on the basis of data from a 2019 study in the United Kingdom) to as much as $123,000, researchers in New York City calculated, if the patient develops a complicated mycobacterium infection.

"In your effort to get a good deal or around the system, you could still end up with a lot of extensive medical bills if something goes wrong," Genes said.

The Liability Dilemma

Many of the ED physicians Carroll heard from said that they wouldn't have treated the woman who needed to have drains removed. Unlike the Brazilian-butt-lifts-gone-wrong in Miami or the complications Genes sees in New York City, Carroll's patient wasn't in a state of emergency. Most ED physicians said they would have sent her on her way to find a surgeon.

"In general, we shouldn't be doing things we aren't trained to do. It's sort of a slippery slope," Genes said. He's comfortable with removing stitches, but for surgical drains and plastic apparatuses, "I don't feel particularly well trained. I'd have to consult a colleague in general surgery," he said. When he does get one of these patients, he works the phones to find a plastic surgeon who will see the patient ― something he says their original plastic surgeon should have done.

"Sitting there with the patient, I felt a little bad for her," Carroll said. "I knew if I didn't do it, it would be weeks while she bounced around to urgent care, primary care, and finally found a surgeon." But by removing the drains, he did shift some of the liability to himself. "If she developed a wound infection, then I'm on the hook for [that]," he said. "If I send her away, I have less liability but didn't quite do the right thing for the patient."

In replies to Carroll's thread, some doctors debated whether these types of cases, particularly those in which surgeons forgo follow-up care, could be considered medical abandonment. Legal experts say that's not exactly the case, at least it would not be the case with Carroll's patient.

"I don't think they've abandoned the patient; I think they've abandoned care," said Michael Flynn, JD, professor of personal injury law at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale–Davie, Florida. "And that abandonment of follow-up care ― if it falls below the standard of what medical professionals should do, then it's malpractice."

"The doctor didn't just walk away and become unreachable," said Bernard Black, JD, a medical malpractice attorney and law professor at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. Technically, the surgeon referred the patient to the ED. Black agreed that it sounds more like a question of malpractice, "but without real damages, there's no claim."

Even if not illegal, sending these patients to the ED is still highly unethical, Carroll said. The authors of a 2014 article in Aesthetic Plastic Surgery concur: "It is the duty and ethical responsibility of plastic surgeons to prevent unnecessary complications following tourism medicine by adequately counseling patients, defining perioperative treatment protocols, and reporting complications to regional and specialty-specific governing bodies," they write.

Sometimes patients need to travel, Matarasso said. Recently, three out-of-state patients came to him for procedures. Two stayed in Manhattan until their follow-up care was finished; he arranged care elsewhere for the third. It's the operating surgeon's job to connect patients with someone who can provide follow-up care when they go home, Matarasso said. If a surgeon doesn't have a connection in a patient's home city, the ASPS has a referral service to help, he said.

"My frustration was never with the patient," Carroll said. "No one should feel bad about coming to an ED for literally anything, and I mean that. My frustration is with the surgeon who didn't go the one extra step to arrange her follow-up."

Donavyn Coffey is a freelance journalist who covers health and the environment from her home in the Bluegrass. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, Insider, and SELF.

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