Medical tourism is a growing phenomenon across many southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. People choose to travel overseas for various medical reasons such as dental procedures, cosmetic surgery, and eye operations, often due to these procedures being available for a much lower cost when compared to their home country. Opting to have a treatment done internationally can also offer shorter waiting periods, more privacy, and an opportunity to have a holiday at the same time. However, while laser eye surgery in Thailand may be accessible for a fraction of the price of the same procedure in Australia, with these potential benefits come a host of potential risks.
Standards of skill and training
Ophthalmology training is not the same across all countries. Although many of the steps in both LASIK and PRK procedures are guided by computer algorithm, significant experience is still desirable in order to achieve the optimal visual outcome. To minimise the risk of complications, all candidates for laser eye surgery should first undergo a comprehensive eye examination by an appropriately trained clinician to ensure there are no findings, such as the beginnings of cataracts or cornea disease, with the potential to compromise the final outcome of the surgery. Access to the most modern equipment and technology in the hospitals of developing countries can also be limited.
Though not something that may first come to mind, language and communication difficulties can add further anxiety and complication to an already stressful situation. As part of a good, comprehensive service, a detailed interview prior to surgery is necessary to understand what the patient is hoping to achieve from their refractive eye surgery, such as whether they wish to reduce dependency on both distance and near prescriptions or if they would prefer to achieve excellent long distance vision and still maintain reading glasses.
Even if the clinician is reasonably fluent in English, Australian slang words or cultural differences in the use of certain words can create confusion.
There may also be difficulty in effectively communicating symptoms should complications arise, such as pain, glare, grittiness, haloes, or floaters.
Antibiotic resistant bacteria
Undergoing laser eye surgery in Thailand may expose you to strains of bacteria that are not typically encountered in Australia. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has raised concerns about the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are contracted by a patient undertaking a medical procedure in a foreign country and subsequently transferred into Australia upon their return. Not only does this contribute to antibiotic-resistant infections in our country but also places the patient themselves at great risk of encountering a post-operative eye infection that does not respond to the antibiotics we have available.
Lack of consistent follow-up and continuity of care
Multiple review appointments are required after undergoing eye laser surgery. While Thailand may be a nice place for a short holiday, cases that recover slowly or encounter unexpected complications will likely result in requiring a follow-up in the patient’s home country with a different doctor, which can incur additional costs as this would not be covered under the original fees of the procedure done in a Thai hospital. Lacking appropriate medical records from the original doctor can also further complicate the situation.
Travel insurance and unexpected complications
While some insurance providers now offer some contribution to travel undertaken for medical tourism purposes, including eye laser surgery in Thailand, many do not. Basic travel insurance policies may exclude medical complications arising from elective procedures done overseas, resulting in significant additional costs.
Patients finding themselves in a position of having suffered medical negligence or malpractice after eye surgery overseas may also run into difficulty regarding legal support or rights. The standards and procedures of the legal system in foreign countries can differ quite substantially and those wishing to make a medical complaint against a healthcare provider abroad can find themselves significantly disadvantaged.
Though traveling to Thailand for a combination holiday/laser eye surgery trip may seem like a good idea for affordable treatment, it pays to be aware of the risks that medical tourism carries. Vision is precious and refractive eye surgery, though popular and typically with good outcomes, is not without risk of potentially vision-damaging complications.
Undertaking your procedure in your home country by an experienced ophthalmologist with access to reliable support by the Australian healthcare system should problems arise is your best chance of getting the results you want.