Cosmetic surgery tourism: issues in Colombia

Colombia medical tourism is mostly cosmetic surgery. Questions raised about quality and safety. Lack of regulation has led to a number of cases of botched procedures making the headlines.

In a recent LinkedIn post Dr Shadaab Shaikh of Dr Shadaab and Associates raised serious questions about cosmetic surgery in Colombia:

“In Colombia, more than 350,000 cosmetic surgeries are performed each year; 978 procedures a day, 40 an hour and three procedures every five minutes.

Cosmetic surgery is one of the most profitable branches of medical services in the country. The demand responds to a massive need. But there is little regulation. Over the past decades, Colombia gradually became a setting for offering unsafe surgeries, as the government took no action against the clinics and victims felt too afraid to speak out.

In the past 10 years, this lack of proper regulation has led to a number of cases of botched procedures making the headlines:

  • In 2009, Colombian model Jessica Cediel had a procedure in which a synthetic polymer was injected into her buttocks, one that left her with physical and emotional scars.
  • In 2014, Luisa Toscano, a 20-year-old trans woman, died as a result of having a surgical procedure in an illegal aesthetic centre that offered surgeries to trans women.
  • In 2015 model Angie Mendoza died due to a buttocks enlargement procedure performed by a cosmetologist in Barranquilla.

The authorities are receiving an increasing number of complaints of procedures going wrong.

In 2014, the Medellin Ombudsman (Personeria) Rodrigo Ardila received 19 complaints of alleged irregularities in cosmetic procedures that were referred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

According to data from 2015, the Clinic of the Bolivarian University receives three to five women with serious health conditions caused by illegal aesthetic procedures, every month.

Bills aimed at addressing this issue and regulating cosmetic surgery have been submitted to the Colombian Senate for years, but they haven’t been passed. A lot of money has been invested in powerful lobbies to keep the status quo.

Currently, there is a proposed law aimed at regulating certification of cosmetic surgeons, but it has been delayed and is unlikely to be discussed in the Senate before its Christmas break.

Even if it passes, there is a risk that it will be written in such a way that it will benefit the massive supply of cosmetic surgeons.

Unlike victims of other medical malpractice, the victims of cosmetic surgery can be re-victimised by societal perceptions that “they sought it” and that this is a “punishment for their vanity”.

Colombian women are thus abused twice: once, when they are told they aren’t beautiful and need to go through these procedures to “fix” that and, then, again when something goes wrong and they are silenced, facing cruel judgment if they decide to speak out.

After years of victims’ silence, journalist Lorena Beltran decided to go public with her story of how she suffered after an operation in 2015. By investigating her case and making it known to the public, the country learned of one of the biggest scandals in the industry.

Beltran had a reduction of her bust with doctor Francisco Sales Puccini and, one week later, she suffered from necrosis of her nipples and scars that did not heal. Beltran has accused Puccini of being responsible for this, which he has denied.

Sales Puccini and other doctors took courses delivered in Portuguese at the University Veiga de Almeida in Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, to be certified as cosmetic surgeons. Documents uncovered in an Al Jazeera documentary show that there are many unanswered questions about the validity of these certificates.

Prosecutors are now looking into the case, but it is still unclear whether the inquiry will result in any legal action.”

This is a lightly edited version of a fuller post and is the view of the author, not of IMTJ.