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The secret deadly risks of plastic & cosmetic surgery: What you should know

Some common elective procedures have a death rate of 1 in 3,000

I don’t know about you, but we get a lot of local or community magazines in the mail at our house. Like most magazines, I guess, over half of the pages are ads. And of the advertising pages, a big chunk of them are about plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery procedures.

The glossy magazine pages feature beautiful people in posh surroundings. But as an experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney, I know that there is a lot more to the story than the cosmetic surgery ads tell. If you’re considering plastic surgery, I’d really like you to know about some things that may help keep you safe and even alive.

Check the surgeon’s credentials

Most people don’t realize that a medical license allows a physician to practice any medical specialty and to perform any type of surgery. That means that someone fresh out of medical school could legally perform brain surgery. It means that the dermatologist could deliver babies. It means that a pediatrician could treat elderly patients. You get the idea.

When physicians want to perform surgery in a hospital operating room, they have to apply for credentials. Hospitals are supposed to verify a physician’s competence before granting those credentials. That doesn’t always happen, though. For example, last year I resolved a medical malpractice case involving a big question about wound care. The chair of the hospital wound care department was a pediatrician with no formal wound care training.

At medical spas, office practices, and some surgery centers, the competency and experience checks may be slack or even nonexistent.

I think that many people looking for a plastic or cosmetic surgeon feel comfortable when they see the words “board certified.” The way Texas law works, though, physicians advertising for plastic or cosmetic surgery procedures can say they’re “board certified,” even if their training has nothing to do with surgery. Would you be comfortable in having a board-certified internal medicine physician doing your surgery?

When interviewing or considering different plastic surgeons, inquire about their specific education, training, and experience. Ask about the medical specialty of the board certification. Ask if they did a residency in plastic or cosmetic surgery. Ask about their training and experience in the specific procedure you’re considering. Sometimes answers will surprise you.

I’ll never forget taking the deposition of a Conroe, Texas surgeon in a medical malpractice case. When asked about his training in the specific surgery that he had botched on my client, the surgeon explained that he learned it over a weekend in Tijuana.

Make sure you’re comfortable with the complication rates

From my experience in representing many patients who had problems after surgery, I’ve come to believe that many surgeons do a poor job of explaining the risks of proceeding. While I have no doubt that these surgeons generally think they can keep their patients safe, the truth is there’s always a risk for any surgery. And when it comes to plastic surgery, there are some serious risks.

We’ve already talked about one risk. Lots of physicians with inadequate training perform cosmetic and plastic surgery procedures. Their complication rates are higher than those of legitimately-trained plastic and cosmetic surgeons.

Even when properly-trained surgeons perform plastic or cosmetic surgery, though, I find the complication rates to be very concerning:

• 1 in 32 patients have complications from abdominoplasty (tummy tuck) surgery

• Around 1 in 3,000 patients who have the Brazilian butt life (gluteal fat grafting) die from complications

• According to a 2000 study, liposuction patients have a death rate of 1 in 5,000 procedures.

While some plastic or cosmetic procedures are inherently risky, there is an additional factor at play. Some surgeons recommend multiple procedures at once. In the minds of many patients, they may think it’s a good idea to get everything out of the way at once. I don’t think their surgeons explain the dramatic increase in risk of doing things this way, though.

Medical research has established that the longer a patient lies immobile on an operating room table, the higher the risk of developing deadly blood clots called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Patients with DVT are at risk of dying from a pulmonary embolism.

That’s exactly what happened in a wrongful death medical malpractice lawsuit that I handled in Dallas. A healthy woman consulted a plastic surgeon who recommended several procedures, including some of the risky ones I discussed above. Her surgery lasted over 10 hours. After she went home, she developed DVT and within a few days died from a pulmonary embolism.

This sad outcome happens more often than we would ever want to think. A lady in her 70s died under similar circumstances, and her story was profiled recently in a Utah newspaper.

That article quoted New Jersey plastic surgeon Dr. Arthur Perry: “There’s no question the complication rate is linearly related to the length of time on the operating room table. In general, most of us try to keep procedures 4-6 hours, and that’s about tops.”

What’s interesting about Dr. Perry’s observation is that despite the serious risk of long elective procedures, the plastic/cosmetic surgery industry has shied away from adopting standards of care, as many other medical specialties have done.

In my view, this means that the safest way for patients to consider these types of procedures is to do their own research. Research the surgeon’s board certification and training and expertise on the specific procedure you’re considering. Then make sure you’re fully informed about all the risks and complications before proceeding.

If you or a loved one has suffered from a serious injury or tragic wrongful death as a result of plastic or cosmetic surgery negligence, then a top-rated experienced Texas medical malpractice lawyer can help you evaluate how to hold the right people responsible.

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.


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