'A person having a non-surgical intervention has no more protection and redress than someone buying a ballpoint pen or a toothbrush'

– Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, who undertook the review of the cosmetic surgery industry in 2013

It is an industry that crosses boundaries of medical ethics, social norms, patient choice and the commercialisation of healthcare; so why has the cosmetic surgery trade remained so loosely regulated for so long?

General Medical Council Cosmetic Guidelines

The General Medical Council (GMC), the body that regulates all practising doctors in England and Wales, has announced that it is implementing strict guidelines for medically qualified professionals who undertake cosmetic surgery. The new rules will come into effect in June 2016.

It is not news that cosmetic surgery is a difficult ethical area. Seen on the one hand as a shameful sibling to 'essential' medical treatment, this field is also an emerging commodity of increasingly general availability and uptake. Putting aside those patients, such as women who have undergone mastectomies, who choose to undergo cosmetic surgery as part of the process of rebuilding their lives, issues such as body dysmorphia and trends in cosmetic procedures are integral to the debate on the role that aesthetic surgery plays in society.

An 'ethical framework' for cosmetic surgery

It is important that cosmetic surgery, a thriving commercial industry, is characterised by proper safeguards and that patient care remains paramount. The GMC refers to its rules as an 'ethical framework'.

  • The new guidelines include the following provisions:
  • The treating doctor should seek the patient's consent personally;
  • The patient must be given enough time and information before making a decision;
  • The patient's psychological needs must be considered;
  • Information about after-care, continuity of care and any medications must be provided;
  • Doctors must take 'particular care' regarding requests for children and young people; and
  • No aggressive marketing can take place – the end of promotional offers, trivialising risks and making exaggerated claims about the results

The scope of the GMC's powers

In a culture where consumers are often driven to make choices based on price rather than quality, these guidelines are welcome. However, these only apply to medical practitioners who fall under the governance of the GMC. There are many companies that offer cosmetic surgery undertaken by people who are not medically qualified. A doctor who falls short of these guidelines could be struck off the register; however, under the guidelines, no action can be taken against a non-medically qualified individual such as an assistant at a clinic.

What can I do?

Anyone considering cosmetic surgery should research the person carrying out the surgery and check that he or she has sufficient experience. You should also ensure that professional, thorough aftercare will be available to you. All medical procedures carry a risk and complication, and it is best to be in the hands of a qualified medical professional if anything goes wrong.