(The New Frontier)
A Luxury Vacation & A New Jawline
Patients are flocking to these destinations for their procedures — and carving in time for some R&R, too.
Maybe you’ve seen the viral videos of men flying back from Turkey after receiving hair transplant surgeries, their heads wrapped in gauze, or maybe you’ve heard of a friend heading to Latin America for liposuction on the cheap. Regardless of how in-tune you are with plastic surgery trends, one thing is for sure — medical tourism is on the rise post-COVID, and doctors everywhere, even in the United States, are hailing a new global era in plastic surgery.
According to Patients Beyond Borders, health care travel is believed to be growing at a rate of roughly 15% to 25% a year and is led by cosmetic surgery, while the International Society of Plastic Surgeons (ISAPS) reported that plastic surgery procedures grew by 11.2% overall, representing more than 14.9 million procedures performed worldwide in 2022.
Dr. Thomas P. Sterry, M.D., board-certified plastic surgeon on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, says he’s witnessed the difference in his own practice. “Medical tourism used to have a very negative connotation in my profession, but we can’t have our head in the sand. Nowadays, people are on Instagram and TikTok and they are connecting with the content I create and flying in here from all over,” says Sterry, who has performed surgery on patients from Australia and England just in the last month.
What’s more, this freshly-minted global market seems to have spawned a phenomenon of its own: The emergence of international plastic surgery destinations, some of which have become synonymous with certain specialties. Besides New York, Miami, and Los Angeles in the United States, there are other international hubs that have become meccas in their own right, offering foreign travelers the chance to enjoy a luxury vacation and possibly save a few (thousand) dollars all in one go. As Dr. Lyle Leipziger, M.D., chief of plastic surgery at North Shore University Hospital and LIJ Medical Center, says, “the number one reason patients are seeking cosmetic surgery abroad is price-driven.” Here, we spotlight three of the most popular destinations for cosmetic surgery vacations.
What it’s known for: rhinoplasty; hair transplant surgery
In the last week of November 2023, Google searches for “surgery in Turkey” increased sevenfold, possibly on the back of viral videos touting the country’s specialties in hair transplants. But the country is also home to the doctors who helped pioneer the so-called preservation rhinoplasty technique in which surgeons rework and preserve as much of the cartilage as possible to create a structurally sound nose that isn’t going to collapse over time, says Dr. Andrew Peredo, M.D., a board-certified plastic surgeon in Long Island, New York.
“In Turkey, you have these very big-name doctors, and the cost of everything is a lot less, even with hotel stays and airfare, because the cost of living is a lot less,” says Peredo, who has had two male patients travel to Turkey for hair transplants, which are typically done by hand versus machine (as it is popularly done in the United States).
One of the biggest perks of choosing Turkey as your destination? These doctors roll out the red carpet for foreign travelers. While Turkey is perhaps best known for bargain hair transplants — prices vary depending on the type and amount of transplants, but generally cost one-third to one-fourth of what they do in the United States — that doesn’t mean patients receive lesser-quality work. In fact, Turkey is home to many world-class doctors whom people fly from all over the world to see. Dr. Bulent Cihantimur is a premier hair restoration surgeon who charges $3,800 for his patented stem-cell-enhanced hair restoration technique (in the United States, hair transplant surgeries with top doctors can start at $20,000), and many patients find him via Instagram, where he’s known as @DoctorB and has amassed more than 142,000 followers. His clinic reps say that a luxe sprinter van will pick up patients from the airport and from their hotel to the doctor’s medical center. His team also coordinates sightseeing trips throughout Istanbul as well as restaurant reservations.
Destination: South Korea
What it’s known for: blepharoplasty; mandibuloplasty; face lifts
Nowhere is plastic surgery more of a cultural obsession than in South Korea, where per capita, more of the country has gone under the knife than anywhere else in the world, according to The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons’ Global Statistics report. “It’s the plastic surgery capital of the world,” says Charlotte Cho, Korean beauty expert and founder of K-beauty website Soko Glam. “Walk down the block and you have 500 doctors to talk to. There is no stigma.” Cho adds that the work doctors do is, in general, very good, subtle, and less expensive than it is in the United States. “It’s like a factory over there,” she says.
One well-known clinic is Dream Medical Group, which has branches in Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai, and Los Angeles, the latter of which is run by Dr. Kenneth Kim, M.D., a board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon and assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who also teaches at Seoul National University. “What is unique about plastic surgery in Korea is that things are done in a much more detailed fashion,” says Kim, who performs “bloodless” facelifts and double eyelid surgeries and cuts jaw bones in his Los Angeles center. “Korean plastic surgeons will cut facial bone and completely reshape the face,” says Kim.
Kim’s eyelid surgeries, which are also performed by the surgeons in the Dream group in South Korea, use complex suturing techniques that promise more natural, dynamic results and may also make the eyes wider set, larger, or longer to fit beauty standards that are highly coveted in the East. The same is true of the jaw reshaping, which might include shaving bone to reduce size and moving facial muscles or cheek fat to create an oval-shaped face.
Dream Medical Group representatives say they can coordinate airport pickups and stays and special pricing at five-star hotels like Andaz Seoul Gangnam. They also have a dental practice and an aesthetic arm for everything from Botox to stem-cell injections, and they offer overnight in-clinic stays for surgery patients. Other postoperative perks? Laser and hyperbaric oxygen treatments and hair wash services.
What it’s known for: Brazilian butt lifts, abdominoplasty, breast augmentation
In South America, the draw tends to be body contouring. Dr. Lina Triana, M.D., a plastic surgeon in Cali, Colombia, and the current president of ISAPS, sees patients from all over Colombia and outside of her country. A 2019 review published in the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Journal found that about 90% of medical tourists in Colombia come from North America.
Triana, who helped pioneer vaginal reconstructive surgery, believes that it’s the aesthetic of “Latin contours” (i.e., the proportion of a smaller waist to more generous backside and hips) that made her country become one of the first to embrace Brazilian butt lifts (BBLs) and other procedures that create an hourglass shape. In 2022, there were more than 55,000 buttocks augmentations in Colombia, representing nearly 12% of all cosmetic surgeries performed in the country that year, according to ISAPS.
Here, a dollar goes a long way. Triana says she often recommends her patients stay at the Hotel Karlo in Cali, where, for $110 per night (there are even less expensive packages), travelers receive airport pickups, clinic transport, daytime nurse care, laundry service, and three meals daily. In Bogotá, Dr. Ernesto Barbosa, a plastic surgeon who specializes in tummy tucks, breast augmentations, and BBLs, sends drivers to the airport to pick up patients, provides nursing care for at least three days after surgery, and offers respiratory and hyperbaric therapy postsurgery.
Still, while great surgeons can be found outside of the United States, plenty of cautionary tales abound. Leipziger says he once had to fix a breast augmentation and lift performed overseas that was so botched, the implant was coming through the patient’s skin. Other potential problems? Skin necrosis (dying skin) and infections that can land you in the hospital, which Dr. Julio Gallo, M.D., a board-certified facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Miami, says he’s seen with patients who have undergone surgery internationally. “It is critical for patients to do the proper research before having treatments abroad,” Gallo says.
But even the best surgeons may encounter post-operative issues, and if a patient is far from their doctor, those problems can be hard to solve over WhatsApp. It’s a good idea to ask your doctor how they plan to deal with them prior to booking that round trip. Dr. Jason Diamond, M.D., a board-certified plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills who sees patients from all over the world and used to have a practice in Dubai, says he refers patients to colleagues in their home country when minor complications arise.
Indeed, one of the upsides of the more globalized and interconnected plastic surgery market is that many of the world’s best doctors are in touch with each other to exchange knowledge and advance the industry as a whole. Diamond says that he knows surgeons “almost anywhere,” many of whom refer patients to him for his specialty surgeries and vice versa. As Dream Group’s Kim says, “I’m trying to bring the best of Asia and the best of America together. Historically, it’s when trade occurred between the East and the West that there was collaboration and advancement.”
In other words, the world might be getting smaller, but it’s making plastic surgery more accessible (and luxurious), too.
Rhee, S. C., An, S.-J., & Hwang, R. (2017). Contemporary koreans’ perceptions of facial beauty. Archives of Plastic Surgery, 44(05), 390–399. https://doi.org/10.5999/aps.2017.44.5.390
Dr. Jason Diamond, M.D., a board-certified plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills
Dr. Julio Gallo, M.D., a board-certified facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Miami
Dr. Kenneth Kim, M.D., a board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon and assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles
Dr. Lyle Leipziger, M.D., chief of plastic surgery at North Shore University Hospital and LIJ Medical Center
Dr. Andrew Peredo, M.D., a board-certified plastic surgeon in Dix Hills, Long Island.
Dr. Thomas P. Sterry, M.D., board-certified plastic surgeon on Manhattan’s Upper East Side
Dr. Lina Triana, M.D., a plastic surgeon in Cali, Colombia, and the current president of International Society of Plastic Surgeons