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

Friday - - The Big Story -

T urn­ing 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

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

Fri­day, 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 andWest with a na­tional car­rier ca­pa­bly fly­ing over a third of the world’s pop­u­la­tion within four hours of Dubai and twothirds 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.”

‘Dubai is ideal for surgery… People don’t have to fly to Bangkok or Sin­ga­pore any more’

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

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

‘The hos­pi­tals and clin­ics in the UAE are spot­less. There are no cases of the deadly MRSA su­per­virus’

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, 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 over­the-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 post­op­er­a­tive 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

‘Dubai’s am­bi­tion to be­come a des­ti­na­tion for med­i­cal tourism is a good thing’

back ev­ery few weeks; our doc­tors are on a ro­ta­tional ba­sis.”


With all the up­sides to this multi­bil­lion­dol­lar in­dus­try, one cer­tainty is that Dubai’s ho­tels want a slice of the ac­tion. While many have in­tro­duced well­be­ing 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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Soon just as many tourists could be drawn to Dubai by surgery as the Burj Khal­ifa

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