by: Alix Tunell

Recovery houses are a dime a dozen in plastic surgery hot spots known for body contouring procedures. Good ones are clean and spacious, serve nutrient-rich, chef-prepared meals, and give patients individualized care and attention from a licensed nurse. But unfortunately, it’s an unregulated space and there are far too many that take advantage of vulnerable, out-of-town patients with promises of accommodations, perks, and medical care that never materializes.

“It’s incumbent upon patients to dig a little bit deeper than the pretty veneer of places that are offering you transport to and from in limousines, and all that shellac, but don’t necessarily have the best reputation,” says Dr. Ruth Celestin, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Riverdale, Georgia. She refers her patients to surgery centers that offer overnight stays and private-duty nurses instead of recovery houses, explaining that she has yet to find one of the latter that has “such high repute that my recommendation will never come back as a problem for me.”

Her best advice, if you’re planning to stay at one, is to “find a community of people sharing insider information. Patients who’ve stayed at recovery houses are the best source for unbiased information.” That’s just the start. Once you’ve landed on a house with consistent reviews, it’s time to get the details that will help ensure you have the safest, most comfortable stay possible. Here are eight questions plastic surgeons say are crucial to ask the owner of a recovery house before putting down your credit card.

How is the recovery house structured?

Ask detailed questions about floor plans, room arrangements, and bathrooms in the recovery house you’re looking into. “A lot of places do a bait and switch, where they advertise photos of their most beautiful room but lure people in with a lower price, which portends to slightly less luxurious accommodations,” says Dr. Celestin. Ask about the number of private rooms, the number of shared rooms, and how many beds are in each shared room.

You’ll also want to inquire about disability access, says Dr. Dev Vibhakar, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Miami. If the house has more than one floor, is there an elevator? Are there wheelchair ramps? Are walkers provided? Additionally, he notes that showers and toilets should always have modifications in place, like handles to hold on to and plush seats, for patient comfort.

Will there be a licensed caretaker available 24/7?

In terms of safety, this is the most important question to ask before booking a stay at a recovery house. Dr. Gregory Lakin, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says that staffers should have patient-care experience and be licensed as a medical assistant (MA), licensed practical nurse (LPN), registered nurse (RN), or nurse practitioner (NP).

“Sometimes, you’ll have a nurse or another health professional who owns the house and serves as the face of the company but doesn’t necessarily do the postoperative care,” says Dr. Celestin. “In some instances, I’ve heard of patients being cared for by someone who is not a medical professional at all, which can be a surprise.”

Once you’ve confirmed that the caretaker has the proper certifications, ask how many other patients they are responsible for. “I wouldn’t want to place my patient in a situation with a caregiver who has more than one or two patients. There’s no question that three or four individuals who just had surgery are going to have pain, medications to take, and different allergies—all that is going to be too much for one person to take care of,” says Dr. Celestin.

 

Will someone help me to shower, change my dressings, and launder my garments?

It may seem obvious that the staff would help with these post-op needs, but you shouldn’t assume that’s the case. “You want to clarify and have it in writing that all these things are included in your package,” says Dr. Celestin. Basic details tend to fall through the cracks when there are too many guests and not enough caretakers; doctors say it’s not uncommon to hear of patients’ having to assist other patients with garments and bandages—which can lead to strain, injury, and infection.

Who will drive me to and from surgery and follow-up appointments?

Many recovery houses advertise transportation to and from the airport, surgery, and follow-up appointments, but Dr. Lakin says that they aren’t required to offer this. If yours does, check whether transport is an add-on service or included in the cost of the stay and how many drivers are available (should another patient’s appointment run over and affect your schedule).

What happens if I need emergency care?

If you are paying for transport, it likely includes only preplanned trips at set times, which is why Dr. Vibhakar says you should always ask about any unexpected charges you may be held responsible for in the case of an emergency. “One of my patients paid $150 for someone to drive her for an emergency visit. [The recovery house] said a nurse would be assisting her, but it ended up being nonmedical personnel.” The house should have a clear protocol for emergencies, but do your research beforehand so you know where the closest hospital or urgent care center is and how you’ll get there if no one is available to drive you.

What other unexpected charges could I be responsible for?

Don’t reserve your stay unless you have a breakdown of everything that is included in the daily rate (around $100 per night is standard, according to Dr. Lakin, and anything more than that would be “a lot”) and everything that is offered à la carte. For example, are you responsible for the cost of gauze and bandages? Do the advertised on-site massages cost extra? Can you upgrade your meal plan? You also want to have a clear understanding of the cancellation policy, should anything come up at the last minute that would make you ineligible for surgery.

 

What are the visitation rules?

Too lax a visitation policy can be a red flag, says Dr. Vibhakar, since outside guests create excess noise and violate the privacy of those patients who are trying to rest and recover. If you have friends or family you can’t stay with but still want to see while you’re in town, it’s best to wait until you’ve recovered enough to meet them outside the recovery house.

What exactly is included in the meal plan?

Three meals plus snacks is standard, says Dr. Vibhakar, but you should go a step further and ask the recovery house what a typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner look like and then read reviews from former guests. Dr. Celestin says, “I’ve heard horror stories about some local recovery houses. They talk about how they’re going to give you three meals prepared by a chef, then the reviews say it was almost prison-style—some gruel on a tray—and you only get one or two meals. Make sure that the reviews about the food line up with what they’re selling in the package and on their websites.”

Post-surgery, Dr. Celestin says, patients should avoid salt-rich meals, which can increase swelling. It’s a safe bet that if the house is serving canned vegetables and microwavable foods, you’re getting too much salt. “Because my patients are likely going to be taking narcotics, I always recommend that they have a diet that’s rich in leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables, to help prevent constipation. In addition to meals, there needs to be a lot of water being given to these patients. I wouldn’t want them to run into a situation where they’re dehydrated simply because they’re given an allotment of [just] three or four small bottles of water.”