The cheap price tags on weight loss surgeries abroad — particularly in Mexico — are drawing a number of Canadians who can’t afford to have the operations done in their own country. But choosing a clinic abroad without proper research can lead to long-term medical complications, a Canadian doctor warns.

Liza Wood, a 43-year-old mother from Edmonton, Canada, chose to travel to Mexico to have weight loss surgery performed due to her unmanageable weight. After receiving a vertical sleeve surgery in Mexico, which removed part of her stomach, Wood returned home to Canada in less than a week. “I was really, really heavy and it was starting to affect my knees and my hips and my back,” Wood told CTV News about her choice to undergo weight loss surgery. “I felt that with the way my health was failing, that it needed to be done sooner rather than later.”

A few days after returning home, Woods discovered she had developed an infection. She has spent the past two years in the hospital since then recovering from the surgery. “My stomach was leaking into my body and I was really swollen and very, very sick,” she told CTV News. She has had to undergo an additional 50 surgeries in the aftermath of her original surgery performed in Mexico.

Wood is one of many morbidly obese Canadians who are now searching for cheaper versions of weight loss surgery that can be found abroad. But a fraction of these surgeries can lead to grave consequences, according to Dr. Chris de Gara, a surgeon at the Bariatric Surgery Revision Clinic in Edmonton. “They say, ‘What I’ll do is, I will go and take my chances in Mexico,’ and if any major complications occur for such patients, then the costs are astronomical because they can be in intensive care units in hospital beds for months and months and months,” Dr. de Gara told CTV News.

Bariatrics is a branch of medicine dealing with causes, prevention, and treatment of obesity. The term was originated around 1965, meaning “weight treatment.” While exercise and diet are still considered the main form of treatment for obesity, bariatric surgery can safely and effectively assist people in their weight loss goals. But as with any surgery, bariatric surgery carries post-operative risk.

Medical Tourism

Many people choose medical tourism for obtaining treatment that may be far too expensive, in terms of time and money, in their home countries. In Canada, the waiting list for bariatric surgery can be as long as 5 to 10 years, and less than 1 percent of eligible patients are able to have operations done. So people turn to clinics abroad — in places like Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Cuba, and India — to get fast, cheap, and seemingly effective treatment. Foreign medical clinics can often perform the procedure just one day after arrival. And it's often the dirt cheap prices that attract willing customers. Mexico offers gastric banding surgery for $5,000, for example, while in the U.S. and Canada prices can soar upward starting from $15,000.

While many in the U.S. and Canada view medical tourism as risky, others disagree: several commenters on CTV News noted that those who suffer complications from bariatric surgery in Mexico are the exception to the rule. “[My vertical sleeve gastrectomy] was completely effective, no complications whatsoever,” a commenter writes. “More importantly, the medical care I received from the doctors and nurses was the best I’d ever had anywhere…I’m sorry for those who’ve had complications, but it’s not the norm.”

Dana Huppie told CTV News that she was happy with her procedure completed in Mexico, and she has lost 140 pounds since the surgery. But Wood urges people to take caution. “You don’t have to go out of the country,” she told CTV News. “You can have the surgery right here in Canada. Educate yourself and realize that you could go through what I went through and I’ve lost two years of my life.”

It's important to research facilities abroad thoroughly to ensure they are safe, credible, and effective before taking the risk. The Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) recommends staying within the European region, where most medical facilities have the same, or similar standards of care as the U.S. and Canada. The OAC states that it's never just about the surgery itself: "[A]ny experienced and trained bariatric surgeon will tell you that [the surgery] is really only worth about 10 percent of the success equation. The other 90 percent is found in the pre-care, the education, the skill training, the support portion, the follow-up care, and the behavior and lifestyle changes."