Cooling-Off Period for Cosmetic Surgery: Patients Need More Time to Consider Risks

By Zoe Diss

The General Medical Council (GMC) has proposed a mandatory cooling-off period for cosmetic surgery as part of a series of guidelines aimed at making surgical and non-surgical procedures such as breast implants, safer.

Cosmetic Surgery is Real Surgery

The new guidelines are the culmination of an ongoing effort on the part of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) and the British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS) to educate and inform the public about the potential risks of undergoing surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures. BAAPS and BAPS are keen to make consumers aware of the medical reality of cosmetic surgery, as many patients view cosmetic procedures as consumer rather than medical choices. For many, undergoing cosmetic surgery is no different to consumer lifestyle purchases.

Cooling-Off Period for Cosmetic Surgery Will ‘Prevent Misunderstandings’

A mandatory cooling-off period for cosmetic surgery, within which the patient has time to fully consider the implications of undergoing cosmetic surgery, certainly makes sense. Prospective patients offered a good deal on a tummy-tuck or breast implants may overlook the risk of scarring, haematomas and even death in order to take advantage of a limited-time offer. The GMC is also taking measures to enable consumers who are considering a cosmetic procedure to check the qualifications of all cosmetic surgery practitioners.

However, the less-qualified practitioners usually charge less and so even well-informed patients, who could not otherwise pay for the interventions they crave, might decide to use the services of a more affordable practitioner. As the president of the American Society of Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), Dr Scot Bradley Glasberg, observed: ‘Price is usually the impetus to go to someone less trained.’ However, Glasberg believes that educating the public will help to prevent misunderstandings about what can be achieved through cosmetic surgery, as well as the risks involved.

A Mandatory Cooling-Off Period?

In cases where someone is considering cosmetic surgery after experiencing a recent trauma – such as a divorce, loss of a job, or the death of a spouse or child – responsible surgeons generally recommend that the patient wait a few months before undergoing the procedure, although there is no legal requirement to do so. The GMC hopes that the new guidelines – due to be published in 2016 – will effectively force all practitioners to insist on a significant cooling-off period for cosmetic surgery.

Jason Brady, Partner at Blackwater Law clinical negligence solicitors, said:
“It is unfortunately the case that some providers of cosmetic surgery procedures put concern for profits over concern for their patients. This can lead to them ‘hard-selling’ their services which, whilst not necessarily illegal, are certainly unethical.

“In cases where a cosmetic surgery patient is not given a cooling-off period, so as to properly evaluate their purchase decision and the risks involved, the patient may be entitled to later make a claim for cosmetic surgery compensation. An adequate cooling-off period also requires that a prospective patient be given full and transparent information on the procedure, and most importantly the potential risks.”

In 2013, a report by NHS England’s medical director brought to light the risks associated with the cosmetic procedures. This report was published shortly after safety concerns were raised about almost 50,000 PIP breast implants in the UK. The French implants were banned in the UK when the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) discovered that the implants contained cheap industrial silicone filler designed for use in mattresses rather than medical procedures. After more than 7,000 complaints, Jean-Claude Mas, the founder of PIP, was sent to jail for four years after being found guilty of fraud.

New GMC Guidelines and a Cooling-Off Period for Cosmetic Surgery

The GMC sets the standards that are expected of all UK doctors who carry out cosmetic procedures. The new guidelines put forward by the GMC advise that doctors should:

  • Be open and honest with patients and not trivialise the risks involved;
  • Provide patients with a cooling-off period for cosmetic surgery, giving them enough time and information to make an informed decision about whether or not to proceed with the procedure;
  • Encourage patients to tell them how they have been affected by a cosmetic procedure, both physically and psychologically;
  • Avoid targeting people under 18 and seek additional advice from professionals who treat young people;
  • Request the consent of the patient themselves rather than delegating the task to administrative personnel; and
  • Avoid making unjustifiable claims about the results that can be achieved, and not offer cosmetic procedures as prizes.

Rajiv Grover, consultant plastic surgeon and former President of the BAAPS, welcomed the GMC’s guidance as he believes some patients are psychologically unsuitable for cosmetic surgery. According to Grover, the association is looking into developing a screening tool to help identify patients who are not mentally fit for surgery.

“Cosmetic surgery has for too long been seen as a commodity but unfortunately once an operation is done – it can’t be taken back to the shop.”

According to Grover, BAAPS has insisted on a two-week cooling-off period for cosmetic surgery for many years, and also encouraged a second consultation with a surgeon before a final decision was made to go ahead with the procedure.