Plastic surgeon warns Kiwis travelling overseas for 'cosmetic surgery holidays' to seriously weigh up risks

A prominent plastic surgeon is urging New Zealanders to consider the dangers of seeking cosmetic procedures overseas as more Kiwis travel abroad for a touch-up or two - and a holiday while they're at it.  

It's well-known that popular cosmetic surgeries are often considerably cheaper in countries such as Thailand: for example, a facelift and neck-lift in New Zealand can set you back a minimum of $30,000, while Bangkok Hospital offers a package for just 251,000 baht - about $12,000.   

These "fly-in" packages, marketed at overseas visitors, include the cost of the operating room, the recovery room, nursing and food, medicine and medical supplies, and cover the work of the surgeon and anaesthesiologist. However, there are several caveats: including that any additional treatments for complications, or for an underlying or related condition, will incur additional charges and aren't covered by the initial cost.  

Speaking to The Project on Wednesday, Dr Chris Adams - the president of the New Zealand Plastic Surgeons Association - noted that while the prices overseas can be alluring, many patients will end up paying more in the long-run due to the greater risk of complications.  

"Overall, we think it is extremely unwise for patients to travel overseas for elective cosmetic surgery," Dr Adams said.   

"[Risks] include things like blood clots from flying overseas, and infection control issues. Then, if there was an issue or complication, who's going to manage that complication if they aren't covered by ACC?"  

In most cases, cosmetic surgery procedures are considered 'elective surgery' and are not covered by most insurance plans. Some surgeries may be eligible for coverage if they have a significant functional or medical benefit, which could lead them to be considered as reconstructive rather than purely cosmetic.  

But for loyalists, the pros outweigh the risks. One proponent of surgery sojourns is Jackie Brown, who travelled to Thailand 10 years ago to undergo a face and neck-lift.   

"[I was] seeing my mum in my mirror, thinking, 'That's not me, that's my mother'… as much as I loved my mother, I didn't want to look like her, so I had it done. I took that leap of faith," Brown told The Project.  

She was delighted with the results, and the experience inspired an idea. Having had a career in tourism as a travel agent, Brown decided to start hosting group trips to Thailand for other Kiwis wanting affordable plastic surgery - with a side of holidaying. As a result, Bums Tums and Gums was born, with Brown offering "cosmetic surgery tours" of the south-east Asian country.  

"I've always been a travel agent and a tour guide, and I've been teaching for years - when I got back from Thailand, I said to my husband, 'That was so seamless, I could do this'.

"They are senior, senior surgeons. You're getting a big bang for your buck," she claimed.  

One of the women Brown travelled with was Adele Dreadon, who had long wanted to undergo a breast augmentation. For her birthday one year, her husband decided to surprise her with one of Brown's trips.  

"He said, 'How would you feel about going to Thailand and having your boobs done?' And I was like, 'Really?'" Dreadon told The Project.  

Dreadon and Brown met to discuss the trip, and she was sold. She also considers her overseas foray into plastic surgery an overall success, noting she is "very pleased" with her results - which also included surgery on her eyes.  

"My breasts cost $5000, and the eyes were an extra $1000," she said.   

In New Zealand, a breast augmentation with implants typically costs around $20,000, according to pricing cited by Dr Mark Gittos, a plastic surgeon in Auckland. Cosmetic eye surgeries, such as an upper eyelid lift or blepharoplasty, can set you back between $14,000 and $18,000 in a hospital setting, or about $10,000 in a room under local anaesthesia. Comparatively, Bangkok Hospital is offering a surgery and accommodation package for an upper or lower blepharoplasty - under local anaesthesia - for 55,000 baht, or about $2600.  

However, Dreadon admitted that when she informed her GP about the boob job excursion, he didn't share her enthusiasm.   

"He said, 'Just so you know, I'm actually against this, but just please make sure that you have the insurance to cover you'," she recalled.

"To be fair, I've heard the stories in the industry of people who've come back from overseas and it's been a botch-up," she added. "Spend the time, don't be in a rush, and get all the information."  

Before making a decision based solely on saving cash - and a trip overseas, of course - Dr Adams shared some final words of wisdom.   

"Elective surgery is not about a holiday: it's a significant decision for your life," he told The Project.   

"I have seen patients who've come back, who've had much greater costs managing complications, than they would've had if they had funded the surgery in New Zealand."