Expert Voices

For Some, Tourism Now Includes Surgery

Doctors at UF Health Cancer Center - Orlando Health perform surgery
Doctors at UF Health Cancer Center - Orlando Health perform a specialized surgery on a patient with lymphedema. The surgery is only offered in a handful of hospitals in the U.S. and surgeons at Orlando Health say they are seeing a growing number of patients from out of state. A new trend called "domestic medical tourism" has patients planning trips that incorporate both relaxation and medical treatments. (Image credit: UF Health Cancer Center - Orlando Health)

Dr. Richard Klein, section chief of the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Center at the UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health, contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-ed & Insights.

Traditionally, "medical tourists" were patients who travelled to Mexico or overseas for treatment — usually to save money. The United States is one of the most popular medical tourism destinations in the world, along with Turkey, Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, according to Patients Beyond Borders. Some of the top specialties for medical travelers include cosmetic surgery, cardiovascular, dentistry, cancer, weight loss and orthopedics. 

However, more Americans are now becoming medical tourists within the United States, and the Sunshine State is one of the trend's biggest hot spots. The trend is known as domestic medical tourism, and it is booming. 

I've seen the trend firsthand with some of my patients at the UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health. In fact, one came all the way from San Diego to undergo a procedure known as vascular lymph node transfer surgery. When this patient first travelled to Florida, she was on vacation and came to enjoy the sun and world-famous theme parks. On her second visit she came for the sun, theme parks and for surgery.

A lymphedema therapist measures the leg of Amy Caterina, of San Diego, Calif., prior to surgery for lymphedema. (Image credit: UF Health Cancer Center - Orlando Health)

After overcoming cancer, she developed lymphedema, a condition where a blockage stops lymph fluid from draining properly, and as the fluid builds up, swelling continues. Your lymphatic system is a crucial part of your immune and circulatory systems, but cancer treatment can damage lymph nodes, and in my patient, caused severe swelling in her right leg. While doctors haven't found a cure for lymphedema yet, it can be controlled. [Weight Lifting Can Benefit Breast Cancer Survivors]

Dr. Jeffrey Feiner consults with Amy Caterina about a specialized surgery for patients with lymphedema. Caterina made the 2,500 mile trip from San Diego, Calif., to undergo the procedure at UF Health Cancer Center - Orlando Health, one of the few hospitals in the country to offer it. More Americans are booking vacations centered around medical treatments in a trend known as "domestic medical tourism." (Image credit: UF Health Cancer Center - Orlando Health)

At first, the swelling in her right leg was gradual and the pain tolerable. But eventually, her leg ballooned to nearly twice its normal size, forcing her to use compression garments and pneumatic tubes to reduce the swelling. That's why she came to Florida.

The thought of experiencing a life without the pain, struggles and obstacles of lymphedema is what drives patients from their home states to our hospital, and it's specialized procedures that make medical tourism a growing and thriving business. To eliminate the painful swelling in her leg, she underwent a procedure developed in France and offered in only a few hospitals in the United States. During the operation, we transplanted healthy lymph nodes from one part of her body to the limb affected by lymphedema, where she really needed them. This procedure is life changing for many patients, completely reducing the swelling and sending their bodies back to normal. This approach has been so successful that we've already consulted patients from 22 different states in just over a year. 

The calls keep coming. In fact, the state of Florida recently considered spending $5 million to market Florida as a medical destination, and large corporations are getting in on the act. Lowes, Walmart and the supermarket chain Kroger have all negotiated deals with certain hospitals around the country to offer specialized care to their employees who need it. In many cases, these companies are paying travel expenses to send their employees across state lines for treatment. 

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UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health