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What needs to change to make cosmetic surgery safer for patients?

29 Mar 2022

With an independent review into cosmetic surgery underway, Taking care takes a look at this booming sector and the particular challenges for patients in making safer choices about cosmetic surgery.  

Key points
  • Patient safety and cosmetic surgery is the focus of this episode of Taking care.
  • Kate* shares her good and bad surgery experiences as well as her lessons for those considering a procedure.
  • Consumer advocates Maddison Johnstone and Michael Fraser join CHOICE CEO Alan Kirkland to share what they see as some of the red flags for consumers and what a safer system might look like.
  • There is an independent review of cosmetic surgery currently accepting submissions. Patients are encouraged to have their say.


After having a positive experience in her early 20s, Kate* went into her second cosmetic surgery with high hopes. 

‘I thought it would be a simple procedure because I had engaged in website forums with plastic surgeons from around the world  …  I ended up engaging with a ‘Board-certified’ plastic surgeon and I had surgery here in Australia.’

But it wasn’t a happy outcome: ‘I knew from the day that I woke up from the operation that something wasn’t right. I told the surgeon and it fell on deaf ears … I was so humiliated by the way that I looked, I didn’t want to go anywhere, I didn’t want to see anyone.’

‘It was a traumatic experience which has changed my life. I’ve got PTSD from it, it almost ruined my marriage, my children have secondary PTSD from watching my behaviour,’ Kate adds.

Kate’s story is not unusual according to advocates, Maddison Johnstone and Michael Fraser who have analysed online advertising of cosmetic procedures.

‘There’s patterns of people who use [social media] more and tend to breach or potentially breach the advertising guidelines. They are the ones we’re getting phone calls about from patients who have had a very bad experience, or it didn’t quite go like the shiny social media experience as it was portrayed.’ 

‘We saw doctors or practitioners encouraging patients to take out their Super [to spend on cosmetic procedures], especially during COVID-19 when that was easier to access,’ Madison says.

Alan Kirkland, CEO of CHOICE, is on a panel for the independent review into cosmetic surgery commissioned by Ahpra and the Medical Board of Australia. For him, the huge and fast growth in the sector, the role of social media and the financial incentives are all red flags. 

‘Where a procedure has an emotional hook is a sign of risk: where people are not just looking for a resolution of a physical problem, but are looking to try and buy hope - of feeling “more happy”. Often that creates an opportunity to sell something where perhaps the medical evidence isn’t very strong.’

Michael and Maddison highlight the lack of easily accessible information for consumers which they hope will improve as a result of the current review.

They urge consumers to ask plenty of questions about the procedure and possible risks. 

‘You do your research. You don’t follow social media. You don’t follow these influencers that are getting paid or are getting discounted surgery to boost the profile of these surgeons,’ Kate adds.

Listen to the full episode now.

*Not her real name.

Further information

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Page reviewed 29/03/2022