Study Warns: Non-certified Surgeons Marketing on Instagram


Social media is a great place to market services, but it is also a place that lacks restriction. A Northwestern Medicine study warns of providers marketing esthetic surgery on Instagram who are not board-certified plastic surgeons, thus putting patients at risk.

According to researchers, these ads are especially drawing in younger crowds who increasingly try improving their appearance for social media, and who often times do not understand the qualifications required to perform procedures.

“This is a very scary finding,” said Robert Dorfman, the first author of the study and a third-year medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a news piece on Northwestern's website. “Providers—ranging from physicians who are not licensed in plastic surgery to dentists, hair salon employees and barbers—are doing procedures for which they do not have formal or extensive training. That’s extremely dangerous for the patient.”

Hashtag Hunting

The study examined 21 Instagram plastic surgery-related hashtags and discovered the following statistics:

  • Nearly 1.8 million posts used the 21 hashtags;
  • Of the top 189 posts for the 21 hashtags, 163 met inclusion criteria;
  • Plastic surgeons eligible for membership in the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) accounted for 17.8% of top posts;
  • Non-eligible ASAPS membership physicians accounted for 26.4%;
  • 5.5% of top posts were by non-physicians, including dentists, spas with no associated physician and a hair salon;
  • At 67.1%, most of these posts were self-promotional;
  • Educational posts accounted for 32.9%;
  • Board-certified plastic surgeons were 62.1% more likely to post educational content to Instagram; and
  • Non-plastic surgeons were 38.1% likely to add educational content to Instagram.

As patients increasingly rely on social media to choose their provider, it is critical to understand the ecosystem of online platforms available to patients,” said Clark Schierle, M.D., Ph.D., senior study author, health system clinician of surgery at Feinberg and a Northwestern Medicine plastic surgeon. “It is critical that board-certified plastic surgeons use social media like Instagram as a platform to educate patients about the risks of surgery.”

Terminology Challenges

Plastic surgeons have a harder time getting educational content noticed on Instagram, and for that reason, they replace terms like “esthetic surgery” with “cosmetic surgery.”

“Using the term ‘boob job’ as opposed to ‘breast augmentation’ would allow you to reach more patients,” explained Schierle. “But for me, as a responsible clinician, the term ‘boob job’ sends shivers down my spine and is highly inappropriate from many standpoints.”

“It behooves us to find a balance between elegant terminology and terms that are overly colloquial so consumers can find the information online,” he added. “We don’t want to stoop below our ethical standards. We have to strike a balance where we understand and engage using natural language that the lay public is using if we ultimately want to have a positive impact on patient education and safety.”

Know the Difference

The difference between a board-certified plastic surgeon and a cosmetic surgeon is important for clients to understand.

“A cosmetic surgeon is not necessarily the same thing as a board-certified plastic surgeon, and patients need to be made aware of this,” added Dorfman.

A board-certified plastic surgeon is a doctor with more than six years of surgical training and experience and serves at least three years in plastic surgery as a surgical resident after medical school.

A general surgeon, gynecologist, dermatologist, family physician or internist can refer to him or herself as a cosmetic surgeon who wants to perform cosmetic procedures. However, the training is anywhere from a one-year cosmetic surgery fellowship to a number of short weekend courses on topics such as how to perform liposuction, how to utilize injectables or how to place breast implants. 

Source: Northwestern Now

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