By VANESSA GERA
SZCZECIN, Poland (AP) - A rising number of Germans and others from western Europe are traveling to Poland - and other new EU members such as Hungary and Slovakia - to pay less for plastic surgery, fertility treatment and dental work.
It's a trend that has accelerated since Poland joined the European Union on May 1, along with nine other countries, most from the former Soviet bloc.
Aylin Oflas couldn't afford to get the fat liposuctioned from her thighs at home in Germany. So she went back across the border to the Polish doctor who had fitted her with breast implants last year - and asked what he could do.
It didn't take the 18-year-old Berliner long to choose Poland once again for her latest transformation.
``For what it costs in Germany to get rid of the fat in my inner thighs, the doctor here will also take out fat around my knees and in my lower back,'' Oflas said after driving more than two hours to consult with her surgeon in Szczecin. ``And I'll even be able to get my lips made bigger while I'm at it.''
The price: $3,300 - against $12,300 in Germany.
The attraction of medical tourism is partly driven by regulations requiring western European insurance companies to pay for some kinds of dental and medical procedures done in other EU states. With the cost of dental work in the east often a fourth to a half the German price, it's clear why more and more insurers are agreeing to pay.
Uncovered plastic surgery is much cheaper, too.
Breast enlargement, for instance, starts at around $3,200 in Poland, but runs between $6,150 and $9,800 in Germany. A nose job costs $2,000 to $2,500 in Poland, $4,900 to $7,400 in Germany.
Despite the cheaper cost, people have questions about the quality of care in a region that is still poorer than the West.
Maciej Pastucha, the surgeon who inserted two silicone implants into Oflas's chest, said that the number of his Germans patients has doubled in the past year, but that they are still wary.
``Half of them don't trust me during the first talks on the phone or consultations,'' Pastucha, 43, said in an interview at his clinic housing both modern surgical rooms and a family-style kitchen and living room to make patients feel at home. ``They ask many questions about my diplomas, my experience, what techniques I use.''
``And they want to see photos,'' he added. ``When they see pictures of my results, from this moment, they trust me somewhat. But not 100 percent.''
With salaries in state-run hospitals pitifully low, many Polish doctors started lucrative plastic surgery practices during the mid-1990s.
Statistics on patient mobility are hard to come by because most of the surgeries take place in private clinics. But doctors in Szczecin and officials in the European Union's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, say the trend is on the rise in border towns like Szczecin, a port just 10 miles from Germany and reachable by ferry from Denmark.
Pier and Hanna Jensen, a retired couple, made the seven-hour trip by car and ferry from Copenhagen, Denmark's capital, to Szczecin, where they underwent extensive dental surgery at a clinic they learned about on Danish television.
They said their procedures - including crown and bridge work - would have cost $17,000 more in Denmark. That's a huge saving, even with the cost of travel and four nights in a hotel, and they get partial reimbursement from their insurance company. Before Poland joined the EU, none of the work would have been reimbursed by insurance, they said.
``We're saving a lot of money,'' Pier Jensen, 67, said as he and his wife finished dinner in a restaurant where they had been urging other Danish tourists at a nearby table to get their dental work done here, too. ``And the dentists here are fantastic.''
Not surprisingly, German dentists and plastic surgeons aren't thrilled.
Dr. Heinz Bull, head of the German Society for Aesthetic Surgery, said patients who travel to another country for surgery may not assess physician quality as well and could wind up unable to consult their foreign doctor in case of complications after returning home.
But Oflas said she likes Polish doctors better.
``In Germany, they are cold,'' she said. ``The doctor here does what's best for the patient.''
Oflas, who plans to start hairdressing school once she has her liposuction done, said a German doctor who removed her stitches after her breast enlargement scolded her when he learned she had the surgery in Poland.
``He said, 'You didn't go there because they're better, but just to save money,''' she recalled. ``But he said that while I was still dressed. When he saw how beautiful they are, he was shocked.'' <img src="/images/graemlins/frown.gif" alt="" />