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Keywords:

  • bioethics;
  • empirical ethics;
  • medical ethics;
  • Mexico;
  • patient protection;
  • health care

ABSTRACT

Contemporary scholarship examining clinical outcomes in medical travel for cosmetic surgery identifies cases in which patients traveled abroad for medical procedures and subsequently returned home with infections and other surgical complications. Though there are peer-reviewed articles identifying patient deaths in cases where patients traveled abroad for commercial kidney transplantation or stem cell injections, no scholarly publications document deaths of patients who traveled abroad for cosmetic surgery or bariatric surgery. Drawing upon news media reports extending from 1993 to 2011, this article identifies and describes twenty-six reported cases of deaths of individuals who traveled abroad for cosmetic surgery or bariatric surgery. Over half of the reported deaths occurred in two countries. Analysis of these news reports cannot be used to make causal claims about why the patients died. In addition, cases identified in news media accounts do not provide a basis for establishing the relative risk of traveling abroad for care instead of seeking elective cosmetic surgery at domestic health care facilities. Acknowledging these limitations, the case reports suggest the possibility that contemporary peer-reviewed scholarship is underreporting patient mortality in medical travel. The paper makes a strong case for promoting normative analyses and empirical studies of medical travel. In particular, the paper argues that empirically informed ethical analysis of ‘medical tourism’ will benefit from rigorous studies tracking global flows of medical travelers and the clinical outcomes they experience. The paper contains practical recommendations intended to promote debate concerning how to promote patient safety and quality of care in medical travel.