There’s no question that the waiting lists for weight loss surgery, or bariatric surgery as it’s called, are unacceptably long. The wait list in Canada is well over 5 years, with this number varying across provinces and cities, depending on the availability of local facilities.

In desperation, some Canadians are turning to medical tourism for the answer.

Take the case of a woman who went to Tijuana, Mexico, for bariatric surgery, as per the recent story in the Calgary Herald. Due to leak from her stomach after a sleeve gastrectomy (which reduces the stomach’s size), she returned to Canada to endure a prolonged hospital stay, at which point her stomach also had to be stretched out, as the bariatric surgeons in Mexico had made her stomach too small to sustain her.

This lady is not alone: due to the ease of accessibility and short wait times, many Canadians are turning to foreign coutries to have bariatric surgery performed. It costs $,6000 to $12,000, depending on the country (Costa Rica and India are other popular choices) and the procedure performed, which is cheaper than private pay facilities in Canada (eg BC, Ontario), where patients pay $16,000 to $18,000 for comprehensive care.

But remember – you get what you pay for. Medical tourism outfits may not take the same great care in selecting the appropriate patient for bariatric surgery, nor do they take the time to prepare patients adequately for the dramatic and permanent lifestyle change they are about to undergo. Nor do they do much, if anything, in the way of follow up, which is downright dangerous: ongoing nutritional counseling is crucial, as is monitoring for nutritional deficiency, which occur particularly with gastric bypass surgery, and can be very serious if not managed properly.

Further, one can’t help but be wary of an outfit who tries to sell their medical procedure with promises of free nights of hotel accomodation, travel planning, and sometimes with sightseeing opportunities thrown in!

As Canadians, the problem that we need to urgently address is the lack of availability of bariatric surgery within our borders. There are several centres in Canada where bariatric surgery is publicly funded and of no cost to the patient, though the wait times are long. An increase in government funding is desperately needed to improve accessibility to existing centres of excellence for bariatric care, and also to help establish new centres where there currently are none.

Dr. Sue © 2010