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The rise of medical tourism in the UAE

With the Ministry of Health projecting over a million medical tourists visiting Dubai every year by 2020, Anthea Ayache finds out why so many people are coming out to the sun to go under the knife

  • Cosmetic Surgery
    Image Credit: Agency
  • Cosmetic Surgery
    Topping up your tan after a spot of cosmeticsurgery is all the rage.Image Credit: Getty Images
  • Cosmetic Surgery
    Soon just as many tourists could be drawn to Dubai by surgery as the Burj Khalifa.Image Credit: Getty Images

Turning around to admire her newly contoured derrière, 27-year-old Imelda smiled. She had disliked her lack of curves for a long time and had longed to be a little more à la Beyoncé. Now, just weeks after visiting Dubai from her home in Mozambique, she had returned with more than just a token souvenir of the Burj Khalifa – and was already convinced her medical holiday to the UAE for a gluteoplasty had been money and time well spent.

“I knew I wanted the best doctor for the job,” she says exclusively to Friday, explaining why she chose Dubai for a procedure that can cost up to Dh45,000. “I did lots of research and I heard about a great Brazilian surgeon in the UAE, Dr Luis Toledo. After several emails, I knew it had to be him so I flew to Dubai and within a few days I had the procedure. A week later I was home and, although a little sore, happy with the results!”

Imelda is one of a growing number of medical tourists hitting our shores for a nip and tuck in the sunshine.

As one of the most popular cities in the world to visit, Dubai already welcomes near on 10 million visitors a year. According to MasterCard’s latest Global Destination Cities Index (2013), Dubai is headed to become the seventh most popular destination city in the world after the likes of Paris, London and Bangkok.

So along with year-round sunshine, sandy beaches, luxurious spa hotels, world-class restaurants and some of the best shopping on the planet, it seems only logical that visitors looking to return home with 
a smaller nose to accompany their sun-kissed skin and new Prada sunglasses would pick the UAE as 
a medical tourism hot spot.

“Dubai is ideal,” says leading cosmetic surgeon, Dr Jaffer Khan of Aesthetics International in Jumeirah, Dubai. “It has a great location, visas are easily obtainable and there is very good connectivity between countries thanks to the success of Emirates airline. People don’t have to fly to Bangkok or Singapore to get [the kind of surgery] you can get in Dubai.”

Already amongst the world’s top 20 destinations for medical tourism (a phrase Dr Khan rejects, “I don’t particularly like the term because it denotes a degree of lack of sincerity; I think it should be called Medical Procedures Abroad as coined by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery”), and with plenty of scope to reach its full potential, Dubai has all the ingredients to reach its next ‘biggest and best’ projection.

Situated between East and West with a national carrier capably flying over a third of the world’s population within four hours of Dubai and two-thirds within an eight-hour flight, it’s never been easier for people to hop on a plane for a surgery break.

“I was going to travel to Johannesburg for the procedure,” explains Imelda. “I could drive there and back from my home and I have lots of family there, so it was an easy option, but they didn’t have the [kind of] doctor I was looking for and price wise there wasn’t much difference. I already knew about the high standards and results in Dubai so I opted for a break.”

Cost cutting

While she admits salaries are comparatively low in Mozambique and so cheaper Asian countries may be more appealing for her compatriots; for patients with high expectations and high incomes, Dubai, with its sun, sand and (quality) surgery, is rapidly climbing the 
ladder of top medical tourism destinations.

“I have travelled from the UK three times for the sole purpose of having surgery in Dubai,” says a 49-year-old patient of Dr Khan’s, who wishes to remain anonymous. “I’ve had a facial procedure, abdominal surgery and a breast augmentation and the results were exactly what I would expect from an eminent surgeon. Dubai came highly recommended by word of mouth and I’d certainly pass it on.”

According to medical travel website Patients Beyond Borders, Thailand is still the most popular destination for cosmetic surgery tourists followed closely by Malaysia, both offering services at half or even 
a third of developed country costs.

With the price of surgery rising in countries such as the US and UK where surgeons have to pay heavy taxes cost has long been a main factor in luring patients away from home.

“Medical tourism is popular because there is a real need in the market,” explains Paula Vermon, international sales manager for Gorgeous Getaways, a pioneering travel agency for medical tourism 
in New Zealand. “Surgery is too expensive in the home countries of those who come to us, so we make it more obtainable for people of all income brackets.”

While the company has not yet added Dubai to its list of destinations, it is something the 52-year-old admits “has been on our radar”, adding, “We need to look at Dubai as a possibility. Our clients are primarily from Australia and New Zealand so we would need to look at flight times and logistics but we certainly will be researching the industry in Dubai.”

While undertaking that research, they’ll find a staggering amount of surgeons to choose from. “Dubai is one of the places in the world with the highest concentration of plastic surgeons,” says Dr Toledo, who is also the scientific director of the Emirates Society of Plastic Surgery.

“In the US you have one plastic surgeon for every 50,000 people; in Brazil it’s one for every 44,000 and 
in the UAE it’s one for every 18,000!”

Sifting through the surgeons is no easy process, but research will also show that while prices in Dubai may be relatively higher than Glamorous Getaways’ current destinations in Malaysia and Thailand, it will also become clear that Dubai costs reflect a standard of excellence – a reason why it is steadily becoming a stiff competitor to traditionally cheaper Asian destinations.

“India and Thailand will continue to get their share of medical tourism,” says Dr Khan. “But I believe the price point will be the main factor there. I don’t think necessarily however that’s why people will come to Dubai; especially if you’re talking about high-spend individuals in luxurious locations.”

While Gail Clough, part owner of website dubaisurgery.com, which facilitates medical tourism in Dubai for surgery-seeking sun lovers from the UK, adds, “Dubai is no longer a cheap destination for surgery. It used to be when I first moved here [20 years ago] but now it’s almost comparative to the UK, so people coming here are doing so for the cleanliness, efficiency and the quality. For many destinations it really is just about cost cutting, but not here.”

“I travelled to Dubai from Qatar so my 14-year-old son could undergo corrective surgery,” says the mother of one of 
Dr Khan’s patients, who doesn’t want to be named. “He underwent surgery for bilateral gynecomastia [an abnormal growth of the breast tissue in men and boys] and he is delighted with the results.

“The surgery has made my son feel like he is an improved version of himself. We could have had the surgery carried out in another country but Dubai came highly recommended and the quality of the surgeon was extremely important.”

As Brazilian-born Dr Luis Toledo, an aesthetic surgeon with more than 30 years of experience, highlights, “People are coming to Dubai now for surgery because it’s good, not because the price is cheap, which is the right attitude for medical tourism.”

How safe is it?

With cosmetic procedures becoming considerably more desirable as they become not only socially accepted but almost a norm, many people are flocking to countries in the sun for the incongruous combination of holiday and surgery. Often however, by the very nature of its accessibility, potential patients are not necessarily doing their homework.

“Some people spend more time selecting a handbag than they do their surgeon,” says 
Gail Clough, who has gone under the knife more than 20 times in Dubai for procedures ranging from Botox 
to liposuction.

“So my advice to anyone travelling for surgery is to thoroughly research your surgeon. It’s the most important decision you’ll make in your life because if it goes wrong, and that does happen, your life will change dramatically – and for the worse. It’s certainly not a decision to be taken lightly.”

Potential patients therefore are advised to be vigilant when choosing a clinic wherever it may be, and for whatever surgery, minor or major, in order to avoid the misery that comes with paying over the odds and ending up with a botched job.

“The most important consideration when embarking on a medical tour is not to choose it because it is cheap, but because it is high quality,” says Dr Toledo. “Sometimes the money exchange rate makes the treatment more accessible, but low price should absolutely not be a deciding factor. Remember it is much more difficult and more expensive to fix a bad job”.

An advantage of Dubai is that stringent safety regulations are in place and although the Ministry of Health in the UAE, like elsewhere in the developed world, does deal with complaints concerning malpractice and unregistered practitioners, an increased number of measures are being taken to ensure clinics, hospitals and medical professionals are carrying out the highest levels 
of care. They include tactics such 
as surprise inspections to enforce safety regulations.

“Cosmetic surgery patients are in safer hands than ever before in Dubai,” says Dr Toledo. “Many of its hospitals are accredited internationally, with the highest standards of care… That being said, the necessary steps should still be taken whenever opting for plastic surgery, regardless of where you are.”

And bad jobs do happen, albeit irregularly. Most Dubai residents will remember the case in 2010 for example, when Steven Moos, an American doctor who had lost his license, hit the headlines for impersonating leading Washington DC surgeon Dr Steven Hopping.

He operated on his kitchen table, disfiguring women and leaving many in critical conditions with reports saying his villa in Al Barsha was so poorly equipped for the procedures that fat removed during liposuction was stored in cooking pots. It wasn’t long before UAE authorities caught, jailed and deported him to the US.

Such cases, however, are few and far between, with the number of reported malpractice incidents negligible due to stringent and efficient licensing checks. This is the case more so now than ever before as the country begins to lead the way for quality surgery, firmly establishing itself as a destination that offers both world-class care and international standard safety.

This trusted atmosphere of quality has been made possible thanks to the establishment of world-class clinics by some of the world’s leading cosmetic surgeons.

“When I moved here eight years ago there were only 60 plastic surgeons and hardly any of them did aesthetic surgery,” says Dr Toledo, who is also the UAE’s International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) course director.

“Today in the United Arab Emirates we have 150 members [of the Emirates Plastic Surgery Society] and 102 of them are in Dubai.”

Members operate from certified world-class clinics in some of the most hygienic medical environments in the world.

“The hospitals and clinics are spotless here,” says 48-year-old Gail. “There are no cases of the deadly MRSA supervirus. The destination is spotless, the hotels are immaculate and the service is excellent. Not to mention the fact you can move around the city so easily thanks to 
a great public transport system.”

She does however add that accidents can happen anywhere in the world, and again, highlights the need for thorough research before signing on the dotted line.

“Every case is different,” she says. “It’s down to the clinic and the surgeon and many different factors. Yes, it does happen [here] – it happens everywhere and if you’re going abroad for surgery you need to cross your T’s and dot your I’s even more than you would if you were doing it at home.”

“I’m normally really nervous about surgery,” says Imelda. “But I really researched this and I had all my questions answered beforehand. 
I felt well informed and Dr Toledo seemed to know his work so well. Taking that extra time to feel comfortable really is priceless”.

Popular procedures

While numbers vary, it is clear that medical tourism is rapidly expanding both nationally and internationally as surgeries of all shapes and sizes grow in popularity.

“Surgery is accessible to all now,” says Paula from Glamorous Getaways. “We’re not talking extreme surgery here – its normal procedures, real people with real stories and not over-the-top sensationalism.”

The 52-year-old, who has undergone extensive surgery herself, losing 75kg under a Malaysian surgeon’s scalpel for treatments including a tummy tuck, arm lift, thigh lift, breast lift and liposuction, travelled abroad for her treatments. When asked why she says, “Simply because I could not afford the corrective surgery in my home country and they would have done the operations over the space of a year. We are finding a lot of home surgeons recommend spreading out procedures over six months, whereas abroad they don’t put your health at risk but they’ll determine correct, short and professional time frames.”

Allowing short time frame procedures to happen more efficiently in Dubai is the recent move by Dubai authorities to introduce a new three-month medical tourist visa, which can be extended twice for nine consecutive months.

“Medical visas started a few months ago,” explains Dr Toledo. “However, most of my patients still visit me on a one-month tourist visa, that’s normally long enough for a cosmetic procedure. For other medical surgery they could need a longer recovery time, and therefore the three months visa is more suitable.

“I think Dubai’s ambition to become a destination for medical tourism is a good thing and importantly the government is investing in it. The medical visa is 
the first step”.

The government, in a bid to not only attract medical visitors but acquire the best practitioners, has also started granting visiting doctors short-stay visas for as little as one day. In the cosmetic-surgery field, these tend to be star surgeons who arrive, carry out a few surgeries and subsequently return home.

Although this does offer people in the emirate a chance to go under the same scalpel as Hollywood’s A-listers, this is a practice to which some clinics are opposed.

“Visiting surgeons stay a short while, they operate on a few cases and then they go home,” explains 
Dr Toledo. “But who carries out the post-operative, the follow-up, the aftercare, who deals with any potential patient complaints? They end up leaving problems in the country for doctors here to solve.”

A point on which Dr Khan differs, “There is nothing wrong with visiting doctors provided it is backed up by a home support network,” he says. “There will always be post-operative issues that we have to deal with like bleeding, infection, wound breakdown, and these are standard things that we can look after.

“The results are a whole different story and can be assessed only after a couple of months no matter what the procedure. If after that time the patient is not happy then they can see their primary surgeon. If that happens to be a visiting doctor, they are on contracts anyway and come back every few weeks; our doctors are on a rotational basis.”

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Hospatels

With all the upsides to this multibillion-dollar industry, one certainty is that Dubai’s hotels want a slice of the action. While many have introduced well-being holiday packages offering free shuttle services to clinics and luxurious recovery-geared accommodation, Dr Khan believes resorts could take things up a notch.

“We need to work out what we’re looking to achieve,” he says. “Are we trying to create a lucrative business or something novel that hasn’t been done before in wellness?”

His idea is to create an internationally recognised homegrown healthcare brand, an all-in-one destination offering traditional spa treatments with corrective surgery options all within the confines of a luxurious resort.

“I think it should encompass a complete spectrum of wellness,” he explains. “We need one group under which we have what we call a hospatel, a hospital, hotel and spa all rolled into one. Where a patient can walk in and have the same welcoming atmosphere of a spa but can choose to have medical care under that umbrella.”

Pinpointing some of Dubai’s world-class hotel groups, Dr Khan believes their synonymy with 
quality could serve incredibly well 
for Dubai as a number one medical tourism destination.

“In the UK people go to Harrods [Urban Retreat] for Botox, because it’s a name and everything associated with it is quality – so why doesn’t a hotel group here do the same?”

It would seem the possibilities are endless for an emirate looking to add surgery and silicone to its tag of sun, sea and sand, and with Dubai’s typical ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ attitude, it seems highly probable that other surgical destinations will soon be side-stepping as to allow the emirate the number one spot.

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A step-by-step guide for medical tourists
by Dr Luis Toledo

Dr Luis Toledo

  • Search for an ISAPs member to ensure the practice is in line with international health standards.
  • Research the doctor’s qualifications.
  • Schedule a pre-consultation that may be conducted face to face, skype, phone or email.
  • Make sure the surgeon and hospital staff can speak your language.
  • Obtain a price for your surgery and ensure that you have a clear understanding of what is included.
  • For continuity of care, make sure your doctor in your home country is informed about your surgery and provides any relevant medical records to your surgeon.
  • Determine your potential recovery and aftercare needs. How long will it be before you can return home? What is the schedule for follow-up visits?
  • Locate emergency care providers where you are travelling to and at home.
  • Where will you stay the night before surgery and while you recover? Who will drive you to your hotel and help care for you after surgery?
  • Pack for helpful items for surgery including: Clothing that is easy to put on/take off – Special compression garments or a surgical bra.

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