Medical tourism can have disastrous outcomes. Here's how to talk to patients

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published December 15, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Many people travel overseas for cheaper cosmetic procedures.

  • Educating patients about total costs, risks, and rationale can help guide their decisions.

TikTok users are circulating stories about overseas surgeries gone wrong. In trending tales—which appear to be hearsay and cannot be vetted—patients have traveled internationally for cosmetic procedures and returned home with a missing kidney.[]

The alleged stories center on women traveling for surgeries like breast augmentations and tummy tucks in Turkey and the Dominican Republic. Creators express shock while presenting the stories and some suggest that doctors are harvesting these kidneys. Others emphasize the importance of doing research before booking a surgery anywhere and encourage listeners to view these as isolated incidents that do not reflect the countries’ medical culture as a whole.

Aaron Gilson, MD, a plastic surgeon in Portland, OR, says that it’s common for patients to schedule overseas medical procedures, particularly if they are hoping for a more affordable medical bill. But just as costs vary by country, so can quality of care. Dr. Gilson says that he likes to be upfront with patients who are pursuing overseas treatments and to make sure that they are aware of what they can and cannot control.

Some topics to consider include:


If a patient expresses a desire to book a cosmetic procedure overseas, Dr. Gilson says that he first likes to ask them about the reasons behind their decision. Learning about the patient’s rationale can help him educate them about risks and benefits before they finalize their appointment; it can also help them gauge expectations. 

Total cost:

While a procedure in a different country may be cheaper than in the United States, patients will need to factor in travel and boarding costs, which can “add up,” Dr. Gilson says. Whether or not the total cost is more or less than a procedure done in the US may depend on the patient’s frame of reference as well as when, where, and what they are getting done. 

Dr. Gilson adds that many excellent surgeons are based in other countries, but these providers likely won’t be on the “cheap list.” 


Complications can be hard to plan for. However, like the alleged kidney-stealing stories, some complications can be life-altering. Dr. Gilson says that several patients have visited him after receiving a surgery overseas, asking for help with a complication. Surgery complications anywhere can leave patients with pain, less-than-desirable results, or new diagnoses, among other issues. These can also require additional visits to the doctor or corrective surgeries, increasing the physical toll on the patient—and their final medical bill.

Area-based regulations

Different places have different rules and regulations around how doctors can provide medical care. Before booking an overseas surgery, encourage patients to understand the laws in that area—and to what extent they are enforced among providers.

Access and aftercare

After a cosmetic procedure, check-ins with surgeons can support a patient’s aftercare—that is if they are close enough to make an appointment. This isn’t so easy when a patient undergoes surgery overseas.

Among people Dr. Gilson has seen for complications, “the patient frequently isn't able to get ahold of their surgeon or maybe are just told [to] ‘go see someone near you.”


If patients are booking a procedure with a new provider in a new area, encourage them to gather as much information on the surgeon as they can and, if possible, hear reviews from people they know.

“When a patient is set on going outside the US for their care, the only real advice I can offer is that they should know someone personally that had care from that same overseas physician and had a good experience,” Dr. Gilson says.

What this means for you

TikTok users are sharing stories of overseas cosmetic surgeries gone wrong, with some alleging that patients have lost kidneys. While reports have not been fact-checked, anyone can experience risks when undergoing procedures with unknown providers in unfamiliar areas. Talk to your patients about the potential risks and outcomes of surgeries performed overseas to help them make informed decisions.

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