Crackdown on deceptive social media posts by cosmetic doctors

Doctors offering cosmetic procedures will be banned from using influencer testimonials or posting photoshopped images on social media, and their would-be patients will need a GP referral under a suite of reforms aimed at cracking down on rogue cosmetic operators.

Cosmetic practitioners have three months to delete any deceptive and misleading social media posts before new practice guidelines issued by the Medical Board of Australia and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) are enforced from July 1.

Simone Williams says botched surgery left her deformed and ashamed to leave her home.Credit:James Brickwood

Last year, state and federal health ministers flagged urgent action to improve the safety of the $1.4 billion cosmetic surgery industry, including banning doctors without suitable qualifications from calling themselves cosmetic “surgeons”.

It followed a 2022 investigation by the Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes which revealed dozens of patients were left permanently disfigured and in pain, and hundreds of others were left scarred by improperly trained doctors.

Under the new rules, cosmetic surgery advertising must not be false, use testimonials, offer discounts without terms and conditions, create an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment or encourage indiscriminate use.

Patients seeking cosmetic surgery must obtain a GP referral to discuss their motivation for cosmetic surgery with a GP who knows their medical history and can share this information with the doctor they are referred to.

“It’s time to clean up the cosmetic surgery industry to make patients safe – so we’re putting the profession on notice”, Medical Board chair Dr Anne Tonkin said.

Tonkin said the board would act against any doctor who breached the standards and put patients at risk. Disciplinary powers ranged from an initial warning and restrictions on practice to suspension for the worst offenders.

Professor Anand Deva, the director of cosmetic and plastic surgery at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Science at Macquarie University, applauded AHPRA for taking a stand against dodgy cosmetic surgery advertising.

“Some of the stuff that’s being posted on social media by some cosmetic surgeries is just indefensible,” Deva said. “Too many of these doctors are tagging influencers on their social media, saying ‘doesn’t so-and-so look great in a bikini because I’ve done such a good job’, with no acknowledgement of the business exchange between the influencer and doctor,” he said.

AHPRA has been auditing cosmetic surgery advertising since September 2022 and found high rates of non-compliance.

“He had done them for these women free [of charge] in exchange for these positive reviews and influencer posts.”

“These posts are preying on vulnerable women, in particular, and I’d really like to see these people held to account with real consequences,” Deva said.

Simone Williams says the deception that led her to agree to a breast augmentation with her plastic surgeon was a worse betrayal than the botched surgery which left her deformed and ashamed to leave her home.

Williams had meticulously researched the plastic surgeon she wanted to perform her surgery, but when she was told an appointment would be a three- to four-month wait, the receptionist encouraged her to peruse the social media pages of another doctor at the same practice.

Williams was shown dozens of before-and-after photos of perfect breast augmentations.

“Little did I know they were photoshopped,” Williams said. “I later found out he had done them for these women free [of charge] in exchange for these positive reviews and influencer posts.”

Williams said she was rushed through her first consultation, with no discussion of any risks, and was repeatedly assured that her results would be immaculate.

After the surgery, Williams was appalled to find her nipples were sliding off the bottom of the implants.

When she left her follow-up appointment sobbing, her surgeon called her back in and escorted her to a consulting room where he performed a ‘half moon’ breast lift under local anaesthetic.

“I trusted him, and he left me deformed … I just wanted to feel confident after finally deciding to do something for myself after raising three kids, and that doctor just stripped it from me,” Williams said.

It would take two revision surgeries performed by Deva to correct the damage.

But peak surgeons’ bodies are staunchly against another reform approved by Australia’s health ministers that would allow doctors practicing cosmetic surgery without a surgical qualification to apply to the medical board as having been officially “endorsed in cosmetic surgery”.

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, and the Australasian Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, among others, warned the endorsement model would give a green light for practitioners to conduct invasive surgery without the proper training and put patients at risk.

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