Why the Term “Cosmetic Surgeon” Is So Problematic

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Did you know that when someone lists themselves as “board certified,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re certified by the most legitimate board for accreditation? In layman’s terms, just because someone says they’re board certified, doesn’t mean it’s by the most widely recognized board. Because Americans spend billions of dollars a year on cosmetic surgery procedures, the aesthetic landscape is rife with physicians who want to pass themselves off as board-certified plastic surgeons when they’re not. 

Some doctors will advertise as qualified “cosmetic surgeons,” however, many are not sufficiently trained to be performing aesthetic surgeries nor have they earned the proper certification. “A cosmetic board is not recognized as a legitimate board by the American Board of Medical Specialties,” says La Jolla, CA, plastic surgeon Robert Singer, MD. “Cosmetic surgeons and those who promote the cosmetic board may come from nonsurgical specialties and their training is not as robust.”

What does “board-certified” mean?

A board is an independent organization that creates standards for the evaluation process of medical specialties. For a doctor to earn board certification, they must pass a series of oral and written exams about their specialty. 

Which board should I look for? 

When searching for an aesthetic expert like a plastic or facial plastic surgeon, make sure they are recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). While there are other boards with the word “cosmetic” in their name, they are not the same as an ABMS board-certified plastic surgeon. Look for the American Board of Plastic Surgery and the American Board of Otolaryngology (Head & Neck Surgery), which are both recognized by ABMS. 

What is the difference between a board-certified plastic surgeon and a “cosmetic surgeon?”

The difference is simple says Tucson, AZ plastic surgeon Raman Mahabir, MD: “The American Board of Plastic Surgery has stringent training requirements that includes length of training, graduated responsibility, competency milestones, and then a final hurdle: the board examination process. The exam takes place two years after the surgeon starts practice. That way, the examiners are not just testing their knowledge but are also looking at their work for a minimum of two years into practice. There is no other board that even comes close to this level of scrutiny to ultimately ensure public safety.”

“These are not weekend courses or courses with individuals,” adds Richmond, VA plastic surgeon Ruth L. Hillelson, MD. “Plastic surgeons are trained with full emphasis on surgical skills, decision making and the development of the aesthetic edge.”

Why the term “cosmetic surgeon” can be misleading

From certifications bought online to adopting specialties they’ve never been trained in, some of the practices permitted with cosmetic boards can be concerning. “Ear nose and thoat surgeons, hand surgeons, OBGYN, internal medicine doctor and even naturopaths can get certified and call themselves a cosmetic surgeon,” says Dr. Mahabir. 

“You can come from being an ER doctor or a radiologist,” adds Dr. Singer. “There are several physicians that came from those backgrounds, and they think they have taken a fellowship. Plastic surgery requires not only a medical degree, but the minimum four-year residency that covers reconstructive and aesthetic surgery.”

“I personally have had to revise breast augmentations done by an obstetrician that advertises as a board-certified cosmetic surgeon and is doing breast augmentations and lifts,” shares Dr. Mahabir, who warns that patients are truly being harmed by this. “Partly the onus is on them to really do their homework on their surgeon, and partly this is about ‘truth in advertising’ and how we really need to get little more control over that.” 

To determine if a doctor is board-certified in the specialty for which they were trained, visit certificationmatters.org.

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