Boom in pandemic cosmetic tourism backfires


People who flew overseas at the height of the pandemic for breast enlargements, bum lifts and tummy tucks returned to Ireland with complications following their procedures, a study has revealed.

n St James’s Hospital’s department of plastic and reconstructive surgery in Dublin, medics noticed an increase in complications arising from overseas surgery “since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent temporary closure of Ireland’s elective reconstructive and cosmetic surgery due to restrictions in favour of patient safety”.

Now a study led by Dr Marlese Dempsey has revealed eight women were admitted to the unit over a four-month period during the pandemic with difficulties following elective surgery in various European plastic surgery destinations.

The patients experienced infection, wound splitting, implant extrusion and the build-up of fluid under the skin.

All surgery was performed within Europe, with six of the cases in Lithuania or Turkey, while one patient flew to Romania and another to Belgium for procedures.

The length of stay ranged from a day to nearly three weeks, with nearly two-thirds of patients requiring invasive intervention.

The study examined Google trends and found the popularity of plastic surgery topics initially fell at each lockdown date, but rose to pre-pandemic interests after a short period.

The researchers found search topics for procedures which included the terms “Turkey” and “Lithuania” shot up in popularity by more than 5,000pc from January 2019 to February 2021. 

The authors of the study at the St James’s unit said their research showed cosmetic tourism was imposing a significant cost on healthcare resources despite the current pandemic.

“Analysis of Google Trends has shown that interest in these procedures is increasing despite travel restrictions and risks associated with the pandemic,” they said.

“The public need to be informed of the potentially negative consequences of cosmetic tourism and be discouraged from undertaking surgery overseas during the current crisis.”

During the four-month period from November 2020 to February 2021, eight patients were referred to the unit for treatment of post-operative complications after cosmetic surgery abroad.

The surgeries included liposuction, buttock lift, buttock filler injection, breast augmentation, tummy tucks and breast implants.

Half of the eight patients flew out of the country to have surgery on their buttocks.

Over the past 20 years, the fashion for a more rounded physique has become hugely popular thanks to more women wanting to look like superstars such as Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian.

The study — published in the Journal of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery — reveals all the patients were female and were aged between 18 to 48. The most common complications requiring admission and intervention were surgical site infection and wound splitting.

Other complications were implant infection in a third of cases and seroma, which is fluid build-up, in a number of cases.

The study revealed the costing department at the hospital estimated the total financial burden for treating the eight patients was €30,558, or an average of €3,819.75 each.

It was pointed out by the research team that cosmetic tourism has been booming in recent years due to a considerably lower initial cost to the patient, a lack of waiting lists and some aspect of anonymity.

However, the doctors warned: “This low cost can come with an unforeseen price due to deficiencies in standards of post-operative care, such as short stays in a foreign country and lack of follow-up that potentially leads to problems.

“Complications associated with cosmetic tourism have ended up as the responsibility of the traveller’s home country.

“The cost to our healthcare system is clearly evident as 80pc of our patients required surgical intervention under general anaesthetic.”

They cited a recent study that highlighted how patients are now sourcing their surgery online.

However, the research team found only 17.8pc of the top posts on Instagram offering plastic surgery were posted by a certified plastic surgeon, as opposed to non-plastic surgery trained physicians, dentists or health spa technicians.

The authors of the study said cosmetic tourism was becoming a great strain on health services, adding: “This is being exacerbated in recent times with the advent of Covid-19.

“This study shows significant search interest in this issue and the potential problems will continue unless standards are put in place for regulation of this industry, as well as more provision of education on the potential risks for patients considering undergoing cosmetic tourism in the future.”

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