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Big Brazil tourist attraction: A surgeon's scalpel

Brazil is not only a hot spot for athletes right now. It's also attracting a growing number of people seeking more affordable options for cosmetic surgery.

Despite the country's recession, the number of surgeries has increased 10 percent each year since 2010, according to the Brazilian Society for Plastic Surgery. Brazil is second to only the United States in the number of cosmetic surgeries performed.

For 42-year-old Gennifer Williams from Nashville, Tennessee, a medical tourism trip to Brazil has been life changing.

Williams said she lost 95 pounds via lap band and was looking for a way to remove her extra skin. She did research and ultimately picked Brazil to have her procedures done because she wanted a country that was comfortable dealing with brown skin.

Williams had a tummy tuck, a Brazilian butt lift, a breast augmentation and liposuction. Not only did she pay thousands less than she would have in the U.S. but she said she received incredible care.

"I had a nurse and a companion with me at all times. They grocery shopped, they cooked for me, they gave me my medicine. They did everything for me," she said.

Brazil's cosmetic surgery industry is seeing a big boost by patients like Williams. So-called medical tourists, who travel to another country for medical care, are coming in droves. And Brazil is catering to them.

A plastic surgeon and his team perform surgery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Christopher Pillitz | Getty Images
A plastic surgeon and his team perform surgery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"Before the surgery, they come and spend some days to do tourism. ... They want to see Brazil. While they do pre-op exams, EKG, and consult …they enjoy the country," said Bianca Bitner of Cosmetic Vacations, a travel agency for medical tourists to Rio.

And it's all taken care of. Reps make doctors' appointments, arrange travel, recommend restaurants. It's part medical consultant, part concierge service.

"If I would have had my surgery in the U.S., I would have been on my own as far as I wouldn't have had a nurse with me around the clock," said Williams.

While medical tourism originated as a way for people in developing countries to travel to more developed nations for treatment not available to them, it's evolved. Today, people in the wealthier nations are coming to the less developed countries in search of a bargain.

"Here in Brazil, you are going to find prices 30 to 50 percent less than in the U.S. with the same quality of services," Bitner said.

For Luiz Haroldo, a surgeon in Copacabana with 40 years' experience, 10 percent of his referrals come from cosmetic vacations. His specialty is performing multiple surgeries at once.


Gennifer Williams


That's part of the appeal for patients who travel across the globe in search of beauty. "One stop shopping," he calls it.

Of course, not all patients have had the positive outcome and life-changing results that Williams saw. Experts say that all surgery has risks, and adding the variable of traveling as a foreigner creates even higher risks.

Despite that, it doesn't seem to be deterring patients.

Medical tourism to Brazil is expected to grow 45 percent over the next five years, according to the International Medical Travel Journal.

Williams said she plans to travel back to Brazil for more. However, she knows it's not without its risks when it comes to follow-up care. "The one thing that I will say I was concerned about was being over here taking care of my own care once I got back after my two weeks. I was like OK, what if something does go wrong?"