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Who Can Call Themselves a Surgeon?

In recent years there have been a number of high-profile scandals in Australia involving cosmetic surgeons as the popularity of cosmetic surgery procedures has risen. From questionable practices before, during and after surgery, to disastrous, unforeseen results – including fatalities – the cosmetic surgery industry now carries the perception that it is full of ‘cowboys’ who are performing invasive and risky procedures beyond their education, training and experience.

While the right to use certain medical titles is protected by legislation, any medical practitioner has been allowed to call themselves a cosmetic surgeon without needing to have completed advanced specialist surgical training

This post looks at changes in who can call themselves a surgeon and what you should do if you have concerns about a surgeon or the surgery they perform.

New proposals on the table

The lack of regulation around cosmetic procedures and who can call themselves a cosmetic surgeon has long been recognised as a problem – but one that has not been properly addressed despite numerous cases highlighting the real risks involved in such procedures.

Cosmetic surgeons are not the same as plastic surgeons. Plastic surgeons must have completed postgraduate training in the subspecialty area of plastic and reconstructive surgery in a training program administered by a specialist medical college accredited by the Australian Medical Council and approved by the Medical Board of Australia.

Until now, the law allowed unqualified doctors, including general practitioners or other doctors without any postgraduate surgical training, to hold themselves out as ‘cosmetic surgeons’ to unsuspecting patients. Cosmetic surgery is not a recognised medical specialty and as such was not a protected title under legislation.

In December 2022, Australia’s state and federal health ministers agreed to reforms to improve the safety of cosmetic surgery:

  1. Preventing medical practitioners who are not qualified describing themselves as cosmetic “surgeons”;
  2. Ensuring anyone conducting a cosmetic procedure has appropriate qualifications;
  3. Limiting surgery to properly accredited facilities with minimum hygiene and safety standards;
  4. Banning doctors using patient testimonials for cosmetic surgery including on social media; and
  5. Better information for patients on the risks and their rights so they can make an informed decision about any treatment.

The use of the title ‘surgeon’ will now be restricted to doctors holding specialist registration as surgeons, obstetricians and gynaecologists, and ophthalmologists. There will be a further restriction on a doctor describing themselves as a ‘cosmetic surgeon’ without relevant training for cosmetic surgery.

Implications of restricting use of the title ‘surgeon’

The most immediate beneficiary of the proposed change will be patients, who will no longer be misled by the words ‘cosmetic surgeon’ implying expertise in those who may not possess any specialist surgical training. Those operators who continue to promote themselves as cosmetic surgeons without appropriate qualification will likely face disciplinary action and possibly prosecution.

But it is also clear that people’s desperation to undergo certain cosmetic procedures will continue to make them vulnerable to shonky practitioners, who may also be forced ‘underground’, to an extent, by the proposed change.

Concurrently, the AMC is developing new accreditation standards for medical practitioners who perform cosmetic surgery. These standards will have two elements, being the standard used to assess whether a program of study provides persons who complete the program with the knowledge, skills and professional attributes necessary to practise the profession in Australia; and a graduate outcome or capability statement, defining the knowledge, skills and professional behaviours and attributes expected of graduates of an accredited program.

Unclear? Speak with our expert team

At BPC Lawyers we frequently deal with the problem of cosmetic surgery gone wrong in acting for clients seeking compensation for their experience. We are keen observers, therefore, of any change which improves the protection of patients and can help advise you if you are in the unfortunate position where your cosmetic surgery was not what was promised.

Contact one of our Sydney personal injury Lawyers today for more information on what the coming restrictions on cosmetic surgery are for you.