In a way, you have to feel a little sorry for physicians who practice elective medicine: they’re facing the double whammy of a highly competitive marketplace and a down economy. Many aesthetic plastic surgeons, in particular, may be feeling the squeeze as patients postpone or abandon plans for more expensive procedures and visit low-cost clinics and medical spas for non-invasive treatments.
It’s no surprise, then, that marketing is a hot topic in aesthetic medicine today. Cosmetic surgeons are learning that they must market their practices or get left behind by others who do.
But marketing plastic surgery is tricky business for a few reasons. First, there’s the fact that—at least for surgical procedures—the worst that can happen is death. Although the risk of dying due to complications is quite small, it is not zero.
Next, no matter how careful you may be with your messages, when you market cosmetic procedures you are, at some level, encouraging people to feel that they should consider improving their looks. That they’re not okay just the way they are. These two points alone should give every plastic surgeon reason to pause and think through each move they make.
But, how is cosmetic surgery marketing regulated? What do you need to be aware of as you research plastic surgeons?
As you might guess, regulation is, to put it politely, a bit uneven. While agencies at the federal level oversee part of the picture—such as the Federal Trade Commission’s dominion over advertising practices (FTC 1)—the states are in charge of what’s ethical within their borders.
Here are some examples. The California medical board has enacted various regulations to protect consumers from deceptive marketing. Some relate to photography and how it is used. Others cover deceitful pricing. The state also bans the use of patient testimonials, as do Texas, New York and Illinois.
Some states are quite rigorous when it comes to punishing those who run afoul of the rules. Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginal view violations or their regulations as medical misconduct. In contrast, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, state medical boards’ rules are more relaxed (Benninghoff 1).
Marketing regulations, whether applied by the FTC or state medical boards, extend to Internet marketing as well as more traditional forms. As you do research, you may see a prospective cosmetic surgeon who’s very active on the Web, publishing everything from online newsletters to fluffy press releases designed to drive traffic to his or her Web site. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as marketing tactics adhere to federal and state regulations.
What about plastic surgery discounts? Again, there’s nothing wrong with a practice offering specials. But many plastic surgeons are unhappy about a trend that’s starting to emerge—discounts via Groupon offers. For instance, all 11 plastic surgeons who weighed in on the practice on RealSelf.com stated that they believe such campaigns are unethical (RealSelf 1). And the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons has come out against the practice. The BAAPS said, among other things, that coupon campaigns are not only “belittling of the seriousness” of a procedure and “tasteless,” they essentially sell surgery before a patient is assessed in terms of suitability (Gillette 1).
As a consumer, what do you need to think about when it comes to plastic surgery marketing? The first thing you might want to do is take a look at what your state’s medical board has to say about marketing practices. Then, consider prospective plastic surgeons’ marketing efforts carefully. Do they conform? If they do not fall perfectly in line, does it seem like they are careless about the rules? Or perhaps they push the limits of the laws too aggressively?
Next, examine your own tolerance for medical marketing. Do you feel that it’s okay for cosmetic surgeons to market heavily? If you see a plastic surgeon running pay-per-click campaigns on Google, pumping out dozens of press releases and offering a myriad of deals, do these tactics make you uncomfortable?
Ultimately, the relationship you establish with the plastic surgeon you choose is critical in getting great results and having the best possible experience. Understanding the marketing landscape and feeling in sync with your surgeon’s practices should be part of the equation.
Federal Trade Commission. About the Bureau of Consumer Protection. Web. July 4, 2011. http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/about.shtm
Benninghoff, Charles. Ethical Issues in Search Engine Optimization. Plastic Surgery Practice. August 2008. Web. July 4, 2011. http://www.plasticsurgerypractice.com/issues/articles/2008-08_04.asp
Various plastic surgeons. Groupon Smart Lipo Deal. RealSelf. Web. July 4, 2011.
Gillette, Bill. Surgery coupons online unethical. Modern Medicine. June 23, 2011. Web. July 4, 2011.
Reviewed July 7, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Alison Stanton