How is cosmetic surgery abroad regulated?

There’s no doubt that having cosmetic surgery abroad can save you money, with treatments in some countries costing up to 70% less than the same treatments in others. However, while cosmetic surgery is well regulated in some countries, the rules and regulations are less stringent in others. So how do you make sure that the savings you make do not come at an unacceptable risk, and how can you be sure that your surgeon is qualified and competent?

Individual training and qualifications

One of the first things to look at is the kind of medical training required to become a cosmetic surgeon in the countries you are considering. This will vary widely from country to country, from the strict standards in countries such as the USA, which requires at least six years of general surgery and a minimum of three years of plastic surgery training, to countries with no formal qualification levels beyond those of a basic general practitioner.

Some leading cosmetic surgeons operating abroad will have been trained in the UK, and will be certified by the General Medical Council (GMC), or in the USA, where they will have been certified by the American Medical Association (AMA).

Others will have trained in their home country, but all cosmetic surgeons should be able to produce suitable qualifications in general medicine and proof of specialisation in surgery, and specifically cosmetic surgery.

This should be verifiable by their national body; some of the main European accreditation bodies are listed below. Your web browser should give you the option to translate the sites that are not in your chosen language.

If your surgeon cannot show you such documents, or you have any doubt as to their authenticity, then you should look elsewhere.

National bodies and cosmetic surgery abroad

Most countries will have a national association for plastic surgeons that organises the industry at a local level. Such organisations exist to uphold standards and share best practice, and generally membership will require a certain standard of qualification and competence. You should always check out your surgeon with the national body.

Some cosmetic surgeons will also register with more recognised bodies in neighbouring countries. For example, many South American and Mexican surgeons will register with the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

International organisations and cosmetic surgery abroad

There are also a number of worldwide organisations for plastic surgeons, which coordinate the activities of national bodies. These include the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) and the International Confederation for Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery (IPRAS), both of which represent surgeons in over 90 countries across the globe. In Europe, clinics can join the European Association of Plastic Surgeons. 

While not specific to cosmetic surgery, the Joint Commission International (JCI) operates in over 80 countries, certifying the very best healthcare organisations worldwide. JCI accreditation or certification is a good indicator of top quality care.

What does membership mean?

While membership of national and international bodies does imply certain standards at your chosen clinic, it is important to remember that these are industry organisations and not independent monitoring or regulatory bodies. Membership will probably require certain qualifications, backed by regular inspections etc., however it is unlikely that this will carry any legal comeback against the organisation should things go wrong. Even if membership is compulsory, these bodies will not be the ones who license and regulate cosmetic surgeons.

In the vast majority of countries, individual surgeons and clinics will be licensed and regulated by the government health body. Once again, your chosen clinic should be able to provide evidence of such licences, which can easily be verified by contacting the government department in question.

Check the insurance rules

Perhaps the most important regulation to check for your chosen country is the rule on liability insurance. In many countries, clinics must prove that they are adequately insured in order to be allowed to practise, however this is not the case everywhere. If your clinic is not adequately insured, then you could encounter serious problems if anything goes wrong.

As a general rule, insurance is a prerequisite of membership of national and international bodies, and these organisations will often have a discount scheme available to their members.

Research cosmetic surgery abroad carefully

While the vast majority of cosmetic surgery clinics around the world offer safe, hygienic treatments regulated to high standards, it is vital that you thoroughly research your chosen clinic before you commit yourself. Memberships of national and international bodies are all very impressive, but they hold no guarantees. Even government licensing may not be completely up to date, or reflect the treatment you will actually receive.

To be completely certain, you need to get the name of the individual surgeon who will be performing your procedure and check out their qualifications, experience and regulatory compliance for yourself. Never take these documents on face value; always make sure that you get them independently verified.

Avoid taking risks

Naturally, the level of regulation varies from country to country, and this will be reflected in the cost of your treatment. For example, the rules are far tighter in Western Europe than Eastern Europe, and so the prices are higher. This does not mean that you will not get the same quality of treatment, but it does mean that you need to be more diligent in selecting your clinic and checking the competence of your surgeon.

That said, there are enough well regulated countries, offering high quality cosmetic surgery at competitive prices, that it is simply not worth the risk to choose an unregulated, unregistered clinic just to save a few extra pounds.


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