Rising negligence and injuries in the billion dollar cosmetic surgery industry – are new regulations merely a facelift?

PUBLISHED 23 May 2016

Cosmetic surgery is now a billion dollar industry in Australia – as people seek to improve their looks with breast augmentation, tummy tucks, face lifts, or nose jobs (rhinoplasty).

Previously, up to 15,000 Australian women travelled to Thailand each year for cosmetic surgery.  The high Australian dollar and low cost of surgery saw a boom in medical tourism.  However, now the Australian dollar has fallen and more Australians are aware of the dangers of having surgery overseas. Given the falling prices locally – more Australians inclined to have such surgery here at home.

Unfortunately, cosmetic surgery is one of the highest risk categories of medicine – and Australia is no exception.  Between 2006 and 2012, 245 complaints about cosmetic surgery were lodged in Queensland alone.  Just 14 practitioners accounted for over half of the complaints in this area. There is also emerging research which suggests that a few bad apples tend to be responsible for the bulk of complaints against medical practitioners.

Botched surgeries can affect patients in many ways – permanently, in many cases.  Physical deformities, scarring, and ongoing psychological issues flowing from loss of confidence and self-esteem are only a few of the challenges patients have to face in the wake of such misfortune.  Sometimes further corrective surgery and extended hospital stay is required, and the additional expense can often be out of reach for many patients.

The rising number of complaints and tragedies led to a particularly horrific year in 2015.

The Cosmetic Institute (‘TCI’) is the largest provider of cosmetic surgery in Australia. It has an annual turnover of approximately A$40 million, with clinics in Sydney, Gold Coast and soon Victoria. TCI has performed more than 15,000 breast augmentation procedures since 2012.  However, a recent Health Care Complaints Commission report found that at least 6 patients suffered potentially life-threatening complications following surgery – including seizures, punctured lung, and even cardiac arrest.  High doses of anaesthetics were well above the accepted upper limit of safe dosage.  These incidents occurred in the last 12 months alone – and one can only imagine the real figure, since not every affected patient has come forward.

However, recent guidelines have been issued by the Medical Board of Australia to help keep patients safe.  The new guidelines, which take effect from 1 October 2016, require:

  • a 7 day cooling off period for all adults before major procedures; 
  • a 3 month cooling off period before major procedures for all under 18s and a mandatory evaluation by a registered psychologist, general practitioner or psychiatrist;
  • a 7 day cooling off period before minor procedures for all under 18s, and when clinically indicated, evaluation by a registered psychologist, general practitioner or psychiatrist;
  • the treating medical practitioner to take explicit responsibility for post-operative patient care and for making sure there are emergency facilities available whenever they utilise sedation, anaesthesia or analgesia; 
  • a mandatory consultation before a medical practitioner prescribes Schedule IV (prescription only) cosmetic injectables, either in person or by video consultation; and 
  • medical practitioners to provide patients with detailed written information about costs.

The guidelines provide explicit guidance on patient assessment and informed consent, and also require doctors to provide clear information to consumers about risks and possible complications.

While these guidelines are certainly a step in the right direction, there are many gaps that remain in regulation. These new rules do not nurses and beauty therapists – only registered medical practitioners.

The law surrounding medical negligence can be very complex, and difficult to navigate.  Here at Gerard Malouf & Partners, we have a dedicated medical negligence division staffed with experienced lawyers that specialise in this area of law.  If you wish to discuss a concern regarding a botched cosmetic procedure, we encourage you to contact us for a free consultation.

Call us now on 1800 004 878 to book a free appointment with one of my compensation experts, or email your enquiry.