The growing appetite for cosmetic enhancement shows no sign of abating. Procedures such as facelifts, tummy tucks, liposuction, breast augmentation/reduction and rhinoplasty have been around for so long that their use has been normalised. New procedures such as Botox and cosmetic fillers are now becoming mainstream in an industry which appears to show no sign of slowing.
Cosmetic surgeon or plastic surgeon?
The difference in qualifications between cosmetic and plastic surgeons is poorly understood by members of the public and the two appear to be used interchangeably in the media. However, the difference in qualifications is significant.
Importantly, the Medical Board of Australia does not recognise cosmetic surgery as a specialty (unlike plastic surgery). Therefore any doctor can call themselves a “cosmetic surgeon” even though they have no recognised specialist surgical knowledge, training or experience. In contrast, plastic and reconstructive surgeons must undergo a significant number of years of postgraduate education, training and examinations to be entitled to apply for specialist registration and to merit the title “plastic surgeon”.
Cosmetic surgeons focus on aesthetic improvements to parts of the body that are functioning well whereas plastic surgeons are often involved in cases requiring medical intervention such as burns, cleft palate, breast reconstructions and hand surgery.
Further information about the qualifications and work done by plastic surgeons as well as discussion about common myths and misconceptions can be found in this literature by the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons. Read about it here.
Cosmetic surgery is known as elective surgery because it is optional rather than being clinically required. As a result, patients deciding to undergo cosmetic surgery are usually fit and healthy. Yet all surgery carries risks. Complications occur even for those who are young, fit and healthy such as the case reported by the media in NSW in January 2015 of the 20-year-old woman who suffered (and survived) a cardiac arrest during a breast enlargement operation.
Some common risks associated with cosmetic surgery are:
- Numbness – temporary loss of feeling at the site of the incision is not unusual after tummy tucks or facelifts although it is most prevalent in breast surgery.
- Necrosis – necrosis or tissue death is common as a result of the blood supply being cut by the scalpel. For smokers, the risk is significantly increased because smoking adversely affects the blood supply to the tissues.
- Nerve Injury – while the risk of nerve injury is low and may only eventuate with a surgical mistake, damage to facial nerves may be permanent and devastating.
- Infection – depending on where the surgery is performed, infection is a risk particularly for surgeries performed outside of a sterile hospital environment.
- Death – respiratory failure, often due to problems with anaesthesia, is a rare but real complication
How to reduce the risk
- The best way to reduce risk is to choose only a Specialist Plastic Surgeon. You can check whether a registered medical practitioner has specialist registration by checking the online national register:
The Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons can assist with identifying a specialist – phone 1300 367 446 or visit www.plasticsurgery.org.au.
- Ensure there are registered nurses and an anaesthetist on hand in case anything goes wrong. If your doctor chooses to perform surgery in private rooms, be aware of the standards of equipment and infection control, which may be inferior to that available in a hospital.
- Be clear about the level of aftercare provided and where to seek further medical help if required.
We have conducted many cosmetic surgery cases over the years and the media is full of stories of cases gone wrong at the hands of cosmetic surgeons whom patients believe are specialists in their field. Claims about unexpected scarring or problems with breast augmentation procedures are familiar. We have also conducted cases for patients who have had severe and permanent injuries following facial surgery generally performed in the doctor’s rooms sometimes with “assistance” provided by the doctor’s receptionist!
Legal issues which arise in this area include questions about whether:
- The risks of the procedure were adequately explained to the patient (see our Information Sheet – informed consent).
- The surgery was carried out with reasonable skill and care.
- The post-operative care was adequate.
How can we help?
If you are looking for information or help in relation to the issues around cosmetic surgery, we can help you navigate the process. Our health law team is highly respected in the area, with specialist knowledge accumulated over 25 years.
*The material provided in our information sheets is for general knowledge only and is not a substitute for independent legal advice. For further information about the issues affecting you, please contact one of our experienced and professional lawyers for expert advice.