Two more American medical tourists die

Headlines about an unusually high number of recent American tourist deaths from accidents, shooting, car crashes, heart attacks, assault and illness in the Dominican Republic have hidden the deaths of two Americans who recently went there for cosmetic surgery.  IMTJ assess the risks facing the medical tourism sector in the country.

In June, both a New York man and an Alabama high school teacher died after receiving cosmetic surgery in the Dominican Republic. The defensive response by government officials to these medical and other tourism deaths is illustrated by the explaining away of attempted murder of a famous American sportsman as “mistaken identity”.

45-year-old Alicia Williams, a teacher from Birmingham in Alabama, died from complications following multiple related operations including liposuction, a tummy tuck and a Brazilian butt lift. She suffered complications including blood clots and lost a large volume of blood due to her being an anaemic. 28-year-old Manuel Jose Nunez from New York died after liposuction at the Caribbean Plastic Surgery Clinic in Santo Domingo. The surgeon, who operated on Manuel Jose Nunez, at the Caribbean Plastic Surgery Clinic in Santo Domingo, was gynaecologist Oscar Polanco. Polanco has been heavily criticised by the Dominican Society of Plastic Surgery for claiming to be a cosmetic surgeon and allegedly being responsible for at least three other patient deaths.

Despite a long history of American medical tourist deaths in the country, the CDC has no current warnings against traveling to the Dominican Republic. But it has issued warnings in the past about the dangers of travelling there for cosmetic surgery.

In its detailed annual travel book on destination countries, the CDC warns “Most health care facilities catering to medical tourists in the Dominican Republic have not met the standards required by international accreditation organisations. Outbreaks of health care–associated infections, medical malpractice, and even deaths have been reported among foreign visitors traveling to the Dominican Republic for medical tourism. People considering traveling to the Dominican Republic for medical procedures, including cosmetic surgery or dental care, should consult with a health care provider before travel and consider whether foreign health care providers meet quality standards of care.”

The Dominican Republic offers very low cost cosmetic surgery tourism, where most customers are American. It is also the country where a US medical tourist is most likely to incur complications from cosmetic surgery, according to a 2018 report from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital-Harvard Medical School and Boston University of Public Health.

A 2019 study from the University of Texas Medical Branch also suggests that the Dominican Republic is the most dangerous place for Americans to travel abroad for surgery. Researchers looked at cases of post-surgery infections over a 14-year period and found that nearly half of them were from that country.

In 2016, US health officials issued a warning about medical tourism after 18 women were infected by disfiguring bacteria after undergoing cosmetic surgery procedures in the Dominican Republic. The infections, caused by a germ called mycobacteria, led to women being hospitalised and forced to take antibiotics for months.

The Medical Travel Quality Alliance has a medical travel advisory warning to medical tourists about dangerous conditions in the Dominican Republic.

The unfortunate reaction from Dominican Republic officials and organisations to the latest medical tourism deaths is to deny that there are problems.