March 23, 2016 10:51 pm

Weight-loss tourism costing Alberta taxpayers thousands to fix medical mistakes

WATCH ABOVE: More and more Albertans are travelling out of the province for weight loss surgery but some return with serious issues. Su-Ling Goh reports on the cost of medical tourism.

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EDMONTON – Connie Kempton admits her quick fix for weight loss almost cost her life.

“From what I’m told, (hospital staff) called the family in and they didn’t think I was going to make it,” Kempton said.

Five years ago, Kempton travelled from Lloydminster, Alberta to Guadalajara, Mexico for gastric sleeve surgery to have part of her stomach removed. But the staples used to close her incisions leaked and by the time she returned home, she was seriously ill.

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“I had trouble breathing and I was in incredible pain.”

Kempton is one of a growing number of Albertans leaving the country for bariatric surgery, and coming home with complications.

“(Complications include) wound issues, wound complications, post-operative bleeding, leakage from the new surgery that they’ve had,” Dr. Dan Birch, a bariatric surgeon with Alberta Health Services, said.

Birch and colleagues calculated the cost of those complications and published them in the Canadian Journal of Surgery. Between 2012 and 2o13, Alberta taxpayers covered more than $560,000 in surgeries to fix 59 medical tourists. That doesn’t include long-term care.

“These are major surgical interventions,” Birch said. “And we do see a lot of people who may not have been fully aware of that, who may not have totally understood what they were getting into.”

Bariatric surgery within Alberta is covered if a patient qualifies. According to a statement from Alberta Health, “Referred patients are thoroughly evaluated, are required to attend sessions to prepare for the surgery and to ensure they are suited. They are then put on a list to await surgery.”

The current wait time for bariatric surgery in Alberta is two to three years.

Billie Jo Jones of Gibbons couldn’t wait that long.

“I was tired of the system up here… of delaying everything,” the mother of eight said.

After spending five years in Alberta’s Weight Wise program, Jones chose to go to Tijuana for bariatric surgery in September 2015. She has had no complications and can now keep up with her six grandchildren.

“That is awesome,” Jones said with tears in her eyes. “It feels so good that I can actually get out there and be with them.”

Jones paid about $16,000 (including flights and hotel for two people), and lost 44 kilograms. Because recent blood work shows she no longer has pre-diabetes, some say she may have saved taxpayers’ money.

“We did an analysis a while ago that showed in diabetes – if you did surgery on (those patients) – ultimately it would be cost-saving for the system,” Dr. Raj Padwal said.

Padwal, a professor of medicine at the University of Alberta, feels Albertans need better access to safe surgery in their own province. His research shows that in the long run, diet and exercise programs don’t work for obese patients.

“We’ve assessed those (diet and exercise program) outcomes and they’re marginal improvements. So reallocating all that money to do surgery, which is much more effective in my opinion, would be the right thing to do,” Padwal said.

The complication rate for bariatric surgeries within Alberta is 10 to 15 per cent. Birch points out any issues are caught early in patients’ follow-up care.

Kempton feels she was sent home from Mexico to fend for herself. She spent more than two months in hospital in Edmonton.

“I know I made a huge mistake,” Kempton said. “And it is now a responsibility of mine to tell others who are considering this surgery, ‘Please do not do it.'”

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