24 July 2002
The era of “medical tourism” has arrived, and South Africa appears to be cornering the market. Attracted by the country’s world-class surgeons, spectacular tourist destinations and favourable exchange rate, foreigners are flocking here for affordable operations and luxurious post-operative holidays.
Cosmetic surgery is still the major drawcard, but there is now a growing demand for other surgical procedures, including major operations like heart bypass surgery, hip and knee surgery and dentistry.
Both the SA Dentists Association and Cape Town Tourism describe “dental tourism” as a growing phenomenon, and Netcare International says it frequently brings out European patients for major surgery.
The Western Cape health department was recently approached by the United Kingdom’s National Health Service with a request for its top teaching hospitals to conduct major operations like bypass surgery on its own queues of waiting patients.
The hospitals, including Groote Schuur and Tygerberg, claim they have the capacity to take on the British patients, and say they will plough the profits back into areas of need here. But British law, which only allows NHS patients to be treated in the European Union, will have to be changed before this patient exchange can go ahead.
Meanwhile, nothing stands in the way of foreigners who are paying their own medical bills. Keen to cash in on high-quality cosmetic surgery at relatively low cost, they are coming in droves.
Some companies offer package deals that incorporate cosmetic surgery, post-operative care in a five-star hotel and a holiday – either before or after the operation. In most cases these packages are cheaper for foreigners than the cost of the operations alone in their home countries.
Surgeon and Safari
The most successful of these ventures so far is Surgeon and Safari, a young business that has attracted extensive media coverage in the international press. Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Reuters, The Independent, BBC Online, American National Public Radio, CNN, Harpers and Queen – to name a few – have all covered Surgeon and Safari’s astounding, almost overnight, success.
Lorraine Melvill, who heads up Surgeon and Safari, has been asked to address business conferences to divulge her secrets. Melvill jokes that she had to quickly scribble something down in the absence of any grand marketing or business plan.
She attributes some of her success to: her ground-level approach – communicating directly with clients, doctors, nurses and hotel staff ; catering to the individual needs of each client; and a user-friendly website (most of the planning and administration occurs online).
Given the trend towards niche markets in the tourism industry, Melvill realised she could harness the unusual synergy between the demand for tourism, on the one hand, and for cosmetic surgery that is affordable, high-quality and offers the client anonymity, on the other.
Melvill was fuelled by a desire to break away from the negativity plaguing many South Africans who fail to see what spectacular products the country has to offer. “Look at our surgeons. They are world-class.”
South African doctors have had the privelege of years of hands-on experience in hospitals like Chris Hani Baragwanath, the largest hospital in the southern hemisphere. Melvill believes they are academically sound and tend to be conservative. “They may not always have the latest techniques, but newest doesn’t always mean best”, says Melvill.
Judging by her flourishing business (she is bringing in 20 to 30 people a month, and the figure is escalating), her clients are satisfied with the results of their procedures – from breast augmentation to face lifts, nasal reconstruction, liposuction and tummy tucks – as well as their time spent recuperating in a luxurious hotel and visiting tourist attractions.
Most (90%) of Melvill’s clients undergo cosmetic surgery, with half from the United States and the other half from the United Kingdom. While clients from the UK tend to opt for reconstructive surgery and are more conservative about how many procedures they will undergo, their American counterparts “come with a shopping list”, jokes Melvill.
She believes the impact of her business on the country’s tourism industry in general is enormous. People who visit – usually newcomers to South Africa – are unaware at first of the treasures the country has to offer, in particular “the first-world service and hospitality at third-world prices”. They return again and again, says Melvill.
Surgeon and Safari offers personalised programmes to its clients: it facilitates online and face-to-face consultations with registered surgeons selected by Melvill (some of whom visit the United Kingdom periodically for initial and follow-up consultations); meets clients at the airport, and then puts them up at either The Westcliff Hotel in Johannesburg or Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town (both owned by the Orient Express Group) for one-to-two week recovery periods.
Each client is assigned a personal assistant to give them all the support they need and arrange their outings and post- or pre-operative holidays. During their recuperation, patients are visited by body care clinicians for massages and other treatments to speed up the healing process.
Melvill’s business is not without risk – “All surgery is high risk. But we are dealing with elective surgery. People have to take responsibility for a procedure they elect to undergo. This is not about computer-generated, before-and-after pictures. This is about human hands, the work of an artist, on one’s body.”
Surgeons will not automatically operate on everyone wanting to submit to the knife. People who are anorexic, obese or mentally unstable, for example, will be turned away, says Melvill.
Since the surgery is conducted in South Africa, doctors are bound by our laws, not the more litigious-friendly laws of the United States.
Jo Brink is the director of another company, Afrisurge, which offers a similar service for clients wanting cosmetic surgery. However, she also caters to a growing demand from people keen to visit headache, dental and eye clinics.
Brink offers three different accommodation options to clients: self-catering flats, bed and breakfast, and top hotels. She also organises golf safaris for husbands accompanying their wives. Most of her clients are women in their 40s and older, wanting face lifts and breast operations.
Brink believes South Africa’s reputation for some of the world’s best plastic surgeons dates back to Dr Jack Penn, “the doyen of plastic surgery”, who opened the Brenthurst clinic in Johannesburg in 1941 to help victims of the Second World War. Many Europeans disfigured by the war, came to South Africa for the brilliant reconstructive surgery he performed.
Brink claims that foreign patients these days occupy half the beds in plastic surgery wards in some of the country’s top private clinics.
Newest kid on the block is Mediscapes, a Cape-Town based medical tourism business that offers a wide spectrum of medical specialists, post-operative treatments, luxury accommodation and tours to other parts of the country.
Blood transfusions, cardiology, addiction treatment, cosmetic surgery, gastrointestinal and infertility treatments are some of the many procedures on offer.
Says Mediscapes MD Peter Ordway: “Each client’s needs are different, so we adopt a completely personalised approach. We work extremely closely with each individual client, providing tailor-made packages to address their unique needs and, at the same time, we guarantee their personal safety and privacy.”