Cosmetic surgery – putting profits before ethics?


Over 51,000 Britons opted for cosmetic surgery in 2015 – but how regulated is this thriving industry, and what should people be aware of before booking ‘a nip and tuck’?

Whilst the number of procedures so far this year has decreased, the industry is still thriving.  It may be surprising to note, therefore, that there are few statutory limits on who may provide cosmetic procedures.  In particular, there are no controls on who may provide non-surgical procedures, other than limitations on access to prescription medicine and on oral procedures.

With some clinics putting profits before ethics and employing doctors who may not be adequately qualified to practice in this area, this can cause cosmetic blunders which are not always easily rectifiable. Unfortunately, some patients only discover that when it is too late.

Investigative findings and action

In 2013, an independent investigation into the industry highlighted serious concerns and deemed that much tighter and more rigorous regulation for non-surgical cosmetic procedures was necessary. Additional recommendations to ensure patient safety were also made.

Subsequently, the General Medical Counsel (GMC) issued new guidance and the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) also developed a new professional standard for all surgeons who perform cosmetic surgery and introduced a new cosmetic surgery certification system.  Whilst certification means that consumers will now be able to find a surgeon who meets RCS standards, this system is still only voluntary and not yet mandatory. 

Regulation and Brexit

Whilst the Care Quality Commission (CQC) regulates private clinics and hospitals in England that provide cosmetic surgery, its regulatory arm does not extend to clinics and hospitals providing non-surgical procedures. Furthermore, devices and equipment marketed for non-medical purposes (such as many dermal fillers and implants) have historically been excluded from regulation within the EU but will be included from May 2020 under the Medical Devices Regulation 2017.  How they will be regulated in the UK after Brexit, and what assessment criteria will be used in either the UK or UK member states is unknown.

Importance of reasonable service

Some people have unrealistic expectations and may not be satisfied despite the surgeon undertaking the procedure with reasonable care and skill. Management of expectations is fundamental in this field of work.

The most popular cosmetic procedure in the UK is breast augmentation. This may be undertaken for the purpose of breast enhancement or it may be for the purpose of reconstruction following a mastectomy. No matter the reason, the need for these procedures to be undertaken with care and skill is therefore paramount to the health and well being of each and every patient.

Most procedures are dealt with competently and with acceptable outcomes. As with all procedures, cosmetic intervention entails a degree of physical risk.  Physical harm may arise as a result of products used in the procedure, through poor practice or from the inherent risks associated with the procedure, such as infection, bleeding and adverse reactions to general anesthesia. Complications are usually minor and temporary and often not as a result of negligence.

On occasion, however, there are some incidents which could and should have been avoided and which often give rise to more substantial and longer lasting symptoms, extending extend beyond the physical.  The consequences can be devastating, not only physically but emotionally and financially.

It is important for patients who feel that their procedure has not been carried out with reasonable care and skill, where complications have arisen which they feel could have been avoided or which they would not have undergone had they understood the procedure properly to seek legal advice in order to establish any negligence. Advice can then be given as to how to proceed to rectify the error and recover damages.


If you require further legal advice on cosmetic surgery and medical negligence claims relating to a previous procedure, please contact our Medical Negligence Department – our team of expert solicitors will be able to assist. Call on 01708 229444 or email us using our contact form.

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. Specific legal advice should be taken on each individual matter. This article is based on the law as of September 2017.


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