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Surgeons warn ‘cosmetic surgery sweatshops have become rampant’

The use of "cosmetic surgeon" to describe providers of a range of procedures should be discontinued, according to the Australasian Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, who have warned "cosmetic surgery sweatshops" have become "rampant".

The society's president, Dr Naveen Somia, said some providers of invasive cosmetic procedures, including breast augmentation, have chosen to "misrepresent their abilities", putting consumers at risk.

Cosmetic sweatshops may be cheaper but are resulting in more complications.

Last week, the Supreme Court granted permission for up to 1000 women claiming botched breast surgery to take on The Cosmetic Institute in a class action. The case begins on December 14.

Dr Somia said the lawsuit against one of Australia’s biggest cosmetic surgery “sweatshops” is promising and he hopes tighter regulation of the cosmetic enhancement industry will follow.

The industry – which spans minimally invasive injectables to more invasive treatments inculding breast augmentation – is still not as well regulated as other forms of medicine, Dr Somia said, partly because it has grown fast in the last two decades.

He put the rapid expansion down to newer technologies making procedures accessible to a wider number of people, increasing affluence and social media growth boosting demand as "influencers" promote products and treatments.

While cut prices may be tempting to the consumer, they are paying the price for discount surgery.

"This emerging market allowed commoditisation and non-medical entrepreneurs to have a go. Underqualified and unqualified practitioners saw a career opportunity and started to misrepresent their abilities and qualifications on social media platforms," he said.

"The Regulatory oversight has not kept up with the pace of growth and has failed to regulate the practitioners use of the fabricated title 'cosmetic surgeon'."

Dr Somia said that since cosmetic procedures are not covered by Medicare or private health insurance, "they have escaped two additional levels of scrutiny that the rest of the medical industry has".

This has meant the proliferation of what ASAPS calls “sweatshops” which, Dr Somia warns, are not required to adhere to safety standards, employ registered surgeons or practice ethical marketing.

“Social media platforms do not verify or check what the accreditations are,” he adds. “It’s up to your ethics what you call yourself or how you represent yourself. Patients will be misled.

“We don’t know how many [sweatshops] there are at present. Sadly the growth is exponential. The volume of demand means the number of people catering to demand has increased.”

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons Report estimates about 17.5 million cosmetic procedures in the past year, and Australians usage is higher per capita.

Lower prices are the only determinant for sweatshops, Somia says, adding that costs in the industry vary greatly, but he “guesstimates” the average saving is about $3000 for breast implants.

Along with a lack of government regulation is consumer confusion about medical titles and qualifications.

While cut prices may be tempting to the consumer, they are paying the price for discount surgery.

In recent years complications from procedures performed in sweatshops are happening with “alarming frequency”, Somia says, and include cardiac arrest, seizures, lung punctures, blindness, physical deformities and ongoing psychological distress.

The cost of complications from breast augmentation alone in Australia was over $10 million between 2001 and 2014.

Along with a lack of government regulation is consumer confusion about medical titles and qualifications.

Somia explains that the title “cosmetic surgeon” is not an official Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) title.

Choosing a practitioner with an AHPRA registered title is a “guarantee” to the public that the person is legally registered as a specialist.

“With a 'cosmetic sugeon' that guarantee and accreditation is not there,” Somia says.

The Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) is currently reviewing submissions on how to better regulate the industry including one from ASAPS calling for tighter regulations and requesting that the title "cosmetic surgeon" be banned so that patients being treated by an unqualified doctor are no longer misled.

In the meantime, he advises consumers to look for the title "specialist plastic surgeon" and the letters FRACS after their name. These letters mean they are a Fellows of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and, Somia adds, it is "like a safety rating before you buy a car".

For less invasive procedures, Somia warns against “mobile freelancers” and instead advises choosing a reputable clinic and asking questions.

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