Lebanon - Surgery and sunshine
By Brooke Anderson
Medical tourists go under the knife, then off to the beach
Lebanon has long been known as the Switzerland of the Middle East for its banking sector. These days, the Levantine country is claiming another proud nickname.“Lebanon now has the reputation as being the Brazil of the Middle East,” says Lebanese plastic surgeon Dr. Roger Khoury.When Khoury founded the Beirut Beauty Clinic 12 years ago, he recalls that less than one percent of his patients came from abroad, compared with 15 percent today.
Other doctors in Lebanon report a similar rise in patients coming from outside the country. They attribute this to high quality healthcare and hospitals, relatively low prices, a liberal health sector free from government oversight, and of course the attraction of Lebanon as a travel destination.Most of Lebanon’s medical tourists are Lebanese expatriates, with the most popular procedure being rhinoplasty, more commonly known as a ‘nose job’. There are also a growing number of patients who come from the Gulf for the healthcare, and then often stay on for the sun, sea and sand.“When you come from abroad, you get the complete package — the reception at the airport, thehotel, the clinic and people to help during the recovery period. And everyone loves to visit Beirut,” says Khoury.Depending on the procedure, a vacation along with medical treatment in Lebanon can cost less than the medical bill alone in a Western country. For example, rhinoplasty in New York City can cost $20,000, while the same procedure in Lebanon typically costs $3,000.This fact has not been lost on Lebanon’s tourism sector and travel industry — in the Ministry of Tourism’s 2009 Yellow Pages, approximately a quarter of the book includes contact details for Lebanese medical professionals.Dr. Marina Hajj, medical director at the American University of Beirut Medical Center says, “We have contact with all the carriers and we coordinate with them. It’s booming.”Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier, has a link on its web site about the benefits of medical tourism. Here it boasts that, “health tourism has endless opportunities and benefits, and it ties extremely well into Lebanon's reputation as a rejuvenating place and a healthy state.”Lebanon’s place as a healthcare destination dates back more than a hundred years, back when AUB’s hospital was known throughout the Middle East for its medical treatments and its faculty of medicine. The hospital gained acclaim in the mid-20th century for being the first in the region to perform a kidney transplant, as well as open heart surgery. Lebanon’s place as a regional healthcare destination continued until 1975, when the country’s 15-year civil war began. Now, Lebanon has slowly regained its place on the medical tourism map.“After the war, it took time for us and other institutions to come back,” notes Hajj. “In the late 1990s, we again became a magnet in the region. When medical tourism here restarted, we saw some of the same patients that had been treated before 1975.”
The appeal of a Lebanese scalpel
Whether they are returning patients or longtime Lebanese doctors, many people seem to believe that there is an intrinsic understanding doctors here have with their Arab patients that sets them apart from their colleagues outside the region, be it because of their education or their bedside manners.Nasri Holloway, a 56-year-old British-born businessman of Lebanese origin, splits his time between Lebanon and his residence in Sierra Leone. But he always returns to Lebanon for medical treatment, even though he has spent most of his life abroad. This summer, he came to the AUB hospital to get a cancerous kidney removed.Holloway doesn’t think twice about returning to his native country for medical treatment.“I think the doctors are better here,” he says. “In Europe, doctors tend to be much more automated. I don’t know if they’re not allowed to take risks for legal reasons. They work very much by the book. But the book isn’t always the same for two people.”Khoury also believes that many Arab patients from abroad choose Lebanon because they feel more comfortable with doctors of the same cultural background.He recalls one patient who requested the he make an incision for a breast augmentation on the side of her breast right below the armpit. Khoury reminded her that “we’re Mediterranean people, and we like to raise our arms when we dance.” He was able to convince her to get the incisions closer to the center of her breasts.