Risks Of Cosmetic Surgery

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Valerie DeBenedette, Senior Medical Editor

Valerie DeBenedette is a science writer who specializes in keeping people informed about medicine and their health. She has more than 20 years of experience writing for newspapers, magazines, and websites and has written about most areas of medicine. For many years, she was a contributing writer to Cosmetic Dermatology and to Drug Topics, the leading pharmacy trade magazine. She also was a contributing editor to The Physician and Sportsmedicine for many years. She has written about most fields of medicine, including dermatology, sportsmedicine, ophthalmology, general surgery, orthopedics, and women's health; as well as public health policy and the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, she is the author of Caffeine, a book for young people. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.


November 19 2007

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Cosmetic plastic surgery is extremely safe. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) estimates that there is 1 death in 57,000 procedures, while a study in the medical journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery put the death rate (also called the mortality rate) slightly higher, at about one in 51,459 operations.

These are very, very low mortality rates. Let's put this in comparison to other causes of death. In the United States, about 13 women died for every 100,000 live births in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was about 1 maternal death for every 7692 live births. Your chances of being injured in a motor vehicle accident are about 1 in 1,000 in any given year and your chance of dying in a vehicular accident was 15.3 in 100,000 in 2003, again according to the CDC's NCHS, which is about 1 in every 6535 people. Statistically, those are far greater risks.

But very low-risk is not the same thing as no risk. A very low mortality rate does not mean that no deaths ever happen with cosmetic surgery. They happen. Donda West, mother of hip-hop star Kanye West and a retired college English professor, died after a combined tummy tuck and breast reduction procedure, apparently as a result of complications from the plastic surgery procedure.

Although both a tummy tuck and breast reduction surgery are more invasive than most other types of cosmetic surgery, they are still very safe procedures when done by experienced surgeons on relatively healthy individuals. The key factor here is that last phrase, "relatively healthy individuals."

You have to exercise some good judgment and remember three rules:

  • First, you must be in good overall health, especially if you will be having same-day surgery, where you go home that day.
  • Second, if a plastic surgeon you consult tells you that you may not be a good candidate for surgery or for same-day surgery, take that advice seriously. You will probably find a surgeon who will do what you want, but how do you know the first opinion wasn't the right one? You may certainly check it out with a second surgeon, but don't dismiss the advice out of hand.
  • Third, always choose a board-certified plastic surgeon.

Dr. West, a former chairwoman of the English Department of Chicago State University and a former Fulbright Scholar, appears to have consulted with a board-certified plastic surgeon in June. That surgeon asked her to get clearance from an internist (specialist in internal medicine) before he would perform the surgery. He also told her that she would have to stay overnight after her cosmetic surgery

Instead, Dr. West chose to go to Jan Adams, MD, a surgeon in Beverly Hills. Dr. Adams is a well-known celebrity plastic surgeon and is host on the Discovery Health Channel's Plastic Surgery: Before and After program. However, according to the American Board of Plastic Surgery, Dr. Adams is not a board-certified plastic surgeon, nor is he a board-certified surgeon, according to the American Board of Surgery.

According to published reports, Dr. Adams performed surgery for several hours on Dr. West and then sent her home. Dr. West stopped breathing at her home the day after her surgery, and was taken to a hospital where she died. An autopsy was inconclusive and further tests are being conducted at the time of this writing.