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Patient Demand Doesn’t Justify Medical Excess

We live in an era where plastic surgery is routine. Indeed, in many parts of the country, plastic surgery is an expected rite of passage. Years ago, facelifts and “tummy tucks” were done on those in middle age who were trying to experience a surgical time machine. Now, folks in their 20s are having all kinds of work done, not to recreate a prior image, but to create a new one.

The traditional scalpel is only one of the many tools used to perform body design work. There is a smorgasbord of injectable fillers that plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and other physicians provide to a public who is zealously combating every wrinkle. Once a person is of the mindset that the only good wrinkle is a dead wrinkle, he will commit himself to a lifelong odyssey of cosmetic work. These folks are generally never fully satisfied with how they look. They are always finding imperfections that they target for correction.

I enthusiastically recommend readers to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birth-Mark,” which speaks so elegantly to this issue, despite that it was published in 1843.

There is an important role for plastic surgery in the medical arena. These talented professionals perform amazing work in reconstructing folks who have suffered trauma and accidents. I also recognize that cosmetic surgery provides significant benefits to many patients. However, it is beyond dispute that our society is preoccupied with physical appearance and is striving for an idealized and unrealistic level of beauty. Many folks blame Barbie, who convinced generations of girls and women that she was the paragon of beauty and attractiveness.

A few days before I penned this post, I read about women who bring designer shoes to podiatrists so they can have surgery that will permit them to wear their choice of stylish footwear. Indeed, there are foot surgeons who specialize in these procedures. My reaction? Outrageous. We’re not referring here to correcting podiatric deformities. Can a doctor defend performing surgery on healthy feet so that a pair of shoes, probably not designed for a human, can fit? I am sure that there are analogous absurd examples of surgeries and procedures involving other body parts that should embarrass the medical profession.

Patient demand doesn’t justify medical excess. Physicians need to call out abuses in our own house. I expect that those practitioners who are bringing disrepute to the profession will claim that they are fulfilling an important medical function.

Michael Kirsch, MD, is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower. This post originally appeared on KevinMD.

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