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Thinking clearly about cosmetic surgery

26 July 2013

The latest series of The Apprentice has raised new questions around the ethics of cosmetic surgery. In such a vitriolic and heated debate, how can we help to ensure that the right voices are heard?

The inaugural series of The Apprentice saw winner Tim Campbell become Project Director of Amstrad’s new Health and Beauty division. Now it seems that the show has come full circle, with Sir A—sorry, Lord Sugar, choosing to invest £250,000 in junior doctor Leah Totton’s high-street chain of cosmetic treatment clinics, under the fluffy ‘Dr. Leah’ brand.

Lord Sugar has a penchant for controversy. Faced with the choice between cupcakes and the ‘nasty world’ of cosmetic surgery, his appetite for a profit margin proved the decisive factor behind his latest investment. But there’s something unsettling about Lord Sugar’s latest ‘business’ venture and the wider social shifts it implies.

At Forster, we worked with the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS) to issue a response which highlighted major concerns over the trivialisation of non invasive surgical procedures. One major concern was Dr. Leah’s claim to be an authority in the field having only recently graduated — at 24 her experience, direction and clinical judgement are both negligible.

Whilst undoubtedly talented, Dr. Leah’s bravado undermines the more subtle factors so crucial to a responsible medical profession, which relies on society’s trust in doctors to act as impartial and trusted sources of advice. Intellect and entrepreneurial spirit don’t equip Dr. Leah with a true grasp of the complex reasons why people choose to have surgery, often motivated by hidden insecurities and vulnerabilities. This can only be gained through experience with people and is vital to the integrity of cosmetic practice.

In giving such a staunch defence of her credentials, it seemed to me that Dr. Leah was inadvertently belittling society’s (and indeed Lord Sugar’s) instinctive concerns around bringing ‘chemical peels’ and ‘dermal fillers’ to the high street. For people watching the show and toying with the idea of treatment, such an eloquent and persuasive argument from Dr. Leah must have left them thinking, ‘why not?’

This is where strong communications from the sector is key. It’s important for the public to know that other medical professionals hold legitimate concerns around Dr. Leah’s approach. And it’s crucial that these voices are heard in amidst the cacophonous media frenzy surrounding the BBC one show. In the wake of the Keogh review into cosmetic surgery earlier this year, it’s vital that surgical bodies engage with these debates to widen the discussion around much needed regulation in the sector.

More generally, this episode raises broader questions around our society’s perceptions of health and wellbeing. Should we be concerned that more and more people feel surgery will enhance their quality of life? Or is this an outdated view that, as Dr. Leah suggests, insults the expertise and judgement of qualified medical professionals? Whatever the answer, a culture that increasingly views appearance as a treatable ‘condition’ is undoubtedly cause for concern.