Sufferers looking overseas

A dentist chair probably doesn't appear in many holiday dreams, but having your teeth done, eyes lasered or hip replaced overseas is on the rise.

However, health professionals in New Zealand warn that people need to be aware of the risks before booking their trip.

A 2011 report from health insurer Southern Cross found that 15 per cent of policyholders would consider travelling overseas for treatment, though once travel and accommodation costs were included, only the most expensive procedures were tempting.

It did not expect the phenomenon to impact New Zealand surgical markets, especially for procedures that cost less than $20,000.

The global medical tourism market was valued at US$10.5 billion (NZ$12.1b) and is estimated to reach $32.5b (NZ$37.5b) in 2019, according to a 2012 report published by Transparency Market Research.

The report attributes the rise to an increase in healthcare costs, long wait times, an ageing population, and increasing demand for cosmetic and dental surgery not covered by insurance in developed countries, coupled with the availability of high quality, low cost medical services in developing countries. But researchers say the lack of hard numbers is a problem.

University of Canterbury professor Michael Hall recently edited a book, Medical Tourism: The ethics, regulation and marketing of health mobility, and said the lack of accurate data on the international flow of medical tourists, along with some governments promoting it, was creating substantial challenges to national and global public health delivery.

Cosmetic surgery was one of the most popular procedures, as was hip replacements, where people didn't want to wait in the public queue.

"It does appear to be increasing. The reality is that most places don't collect statistics and that's a big concern."

He said people considering it needed to think about legal issues.

"If something goes wrong, do you have recourse? Are you covered by your insurance? What happens when you come back? When things do go wrong, and they definitely do, why should the health system which you decided not to use have to fix it?"

He said he was only being semi-cynical when he said that in some cases governments might even like patients to go offshore because it reduced pressure on the health system. More than half a million Americans travel for medical procedures every year.

For New Zealanders, Asia is a popular destination.

One Nelson woman regularly travelled to Thailand to have her teeth fixed as her regular dentist was "hellishly expensive".

Over four trips, she had hygiene work, fillings and crowns at a quarter of the cost it would be in New Zealand, and a two-week holiday as well. She was happy with the work, though a couple of her crowns lasted only two years. "I had to fess up to my dentist and get them fixed."

Nelson dentist Andrew Meffan said dentistry was not a one-off thing.

"A regular maintenance schedule and early attention to problems gets the best results, no doubt about that. Having a remote dentist is not a good idea."

He said you got "fantastic and terrible dentists" overseas and people wouldn't necessarily know which one they had.

"Some of the stuff I have seen coming out of Asia I would lose my licence for."

One woman had had her teeth straightened but was suffering terrible pain. Dr Meffan discovered she had huge abscesses; an overseas dentist had shaved the teeth to the nerve and glued crowns over the top. "I would have my hands cut off for that."

Dr Hall said picking up drug-resistant bacteria was a danger, citing the case of a Wellington man, who contracted an incurable superbug. 

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The Nelson Mail