The perils of medical tourism

Jenna travelled to Australia to have liposuction. She planned to recover from the surgery at a wellness retreat in the Australian hinterland. She pre-booked for six nights.

Jenna’s surgeon, Dr Elliott, had pre-warned her about the potential complications of liposuction. Although the surgery went well, by the time Jenna arrived at the retreat she was feeling sick. She was unable to walk. She also had a fever. Jenna was only able to spend one night at the retreat, before leaving the next day to seek further medical assistance.

Jenna recovered and returned to New Zealand. She made a claim with her travel insurer for the non-refundable costs of the retreat. The insurer declined her claim, saying that the complications Jenna suffered from the surgery were not unforeseeable. The insurer also referred to an exclusion clause in the policy that applies when a person travels overseas for elective surgery.



Jenna complained to FSCL. She did not agree that the symptoms she experienced at the retreat were connected to her surgery. Dr Elliott wrote her a letter stating that there was no surgical infection, so Jenna’s fever must have been unrelated to the liposuction.



We reviewed Jenna’s case. We considered whether Jenna’s complications were due to her surgery. Although Dr Elliott had said Jenna’s fever must have been unrelated, he did not mention the other symptoms she experienced at the retreat. We also noted that the doctor had previously said Jenna was not medically well enough to attend the retreat while she was convalescing from the surgery.

We agreed with the insurer that Jenna’s complications were foreseeable. Surgery is inherently risky, and Jenna’s surgeon had told her that there might be complications.

We noted that insurers do not generally insure for what is commonly known as ‘medical tourism’. That is because the risk of insuring for surgery, overseas, is generally considered too high by an underwriter.



We formed the preliminary view that it was more probable than not that the costs Jenna incurred arose indirectly out of the surgery, meaning cover was excluded under her policy.


Insight for consumers

We do not know of any insurer who will provide cover for ‘medical tourism’. People who travel overseas for elective surgery do so at their own risk, and should be prepared to pay out of their own pocket if anything goes wrong.