Patients in need of a new kidney may have to think twice about travelling abroad for a transplant, a new study suggests, because patients who receive new organs in other countries have a far greater risk of developing complications.

In a study of nearly 100 patients, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles found that 30 per cent of patients who had kidney transplants done outside of the United States rejected their new organ after one year.

In comparison, only 12 per cent of patients who received new kidneys at the UCLA medical centre rejected their new organs.

The findings call into question the safety of medical tourism. The phenomenon has seen thousands of North American patients travel to foreign countries to receive major health procedures in an effort to avoid wait lists back home.

The authors said their findings indicate that "transplant tourism is a risky option for patients awaiting kidney transplantation and its implications on public health warrant further evaluation."

The findings are published in the November issue of the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

The study included 33 transplant tourists, the majority of whom travelled to China, Iran or the Philippines for their surgery, in addition to 66 patients who received their transplants at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

All of the patients received follow-up care at UCLA.

In addition to the greater risk of organ rejection, 52 per cent of patients who travelled overseas had at least one infectious complication, while 27 per cent were hospitalized due to a severe infection.

Only nine per cent of the UCLA transplanted patients were hospitalized for infection-related complications.

One overseas patient died from complications related to hepatitis B that may have come from the organ donor.

The authors speculated that the higher complication rates may be explained by a number of factors, including:

  • Patient care being compromised during the time it takes to travel from medical facilities abroad to those at home.
  • Poor infection-control measures immediately after surgery.
  • The infectious disease incidence rates in different countries.
  • Potentially unsafe methods for screening donors.