Confronting the Commercialization of Plastic Surgery

Eric Swanson, commercialization of plastic surgery

Eric Swanson, MD

Having opened his plastic surgery practice in Kansas City 24 years ago, Eric Swanson, MD, has received his fair share of sales calls and marketing pitches. Among them: a salary of $325,000 and a company car, a promise of $450,000 for working 2 days per week and a promise that he could double his income.

The offers, he says, came from national cosmetic-treatment corporations that promised such pay and perks if he embraced their “formula” of promoting branded procedures, marketing them directly to the public and relying on salespeople to match patients to procedures rather than the other way around.

Swanson was not interested but they apparently made an impression as he opted instead to write an article called “The Commercialization of Plastic Surgery,” which was published in the Sept. issue of Aesthetic Surgery Journal. We caught up with him via phone to learn more about his thoughts on the subject: (MB): Some of the offers you’ve received sound pretty tempting:

Eric Swanson: They do sound enticing. I can understand how a plastic surgeon just starting out in practice and the phone’s not ringing could be drawn to them. And there may be some surgeons in the later years of their practice and things are winding down and they can be like a contract employee rather than maintain their own practice and all the things that go with it.

MB: And you believe plastic surgeons who do so may be selling themselves short?

ES: Here you’ve trained to be a plastic surgeon – to me that’s an honor and a privilege – and you’ve spent so many years doing it and at the end of all that you become an agent providing a technical, almost cookie-cutter service, to a corporation. To me, you’re overqualified for that. I like to control my own practice; I don’t want to be dictated to about doing [procedures] by a formula.

MB: In ASJ, you wrote that such companies utilize “infomercials and full-page national advertisements [that] promise stunning results, even telling people they can ‘recapture youth’ (subtly leaving out “the appearance of”) and look 20 years younger in an hour.” Isn’t that what advertising always does?

ES: We’re all aware of the unrealistic claims in advertising — it goes on all the time. But in medicine, you are held to a higher standard because patients are vulnerable. It’s no time for buyer beware. That’s why they’re patients, not clients. It’s a subtle difference but you start to get away from that responsibility. Doctors need to remember that they’re doctors first, not salespeople.

MB: And it’s the sales aspect that you find particularly troubling?

ES: It’s inverting the process. You’re starting off with the treatment rather than starting off with ‘Hi, I’m your doctor, what brought you in to see me?’ Instead, you start with, okay, we have this laser liposuction machine. Employees are instructed that when someone calls in and says they have some extra fat to tell them how this laser-assisted liposuction is going to change their life. It’s like they’ve been prepped and the surgeon’s job is basically not to mess up the sale.

MB: What do you tell prospective patients who are still trying to decide on their course of action?

ES: I explain to a prospective patient that the alternative may mean you’ll be in an office, you’ll be under a local anesthetic so you’ll be uncomfortable and you won’t be monitored by an anesthetist. I explain my case and why I do it the way I do it. It’s not a difficult case to make and most patients get it. Discounted fees typically come with reduced services.

MB: But given the advertising, the infomercials and the sales pitches, how do you get to make your case if they never get to the point where they come in to see you?

ES: You build word of mouth the old-fashioned way. You talk about the alternatives, provide information on your website, write articles, respond to questions on RealSelf. If you maintain your moral standards, it will work out.

MB: Given all of the above, how do you see this issue playing out going forward?

ES: I’m a believer in the market and eventually the market will work it out – if corporate-style plastic surgery deserves to survive, it’ll survive and if it deserves not to, it won’t. The good news is more and more people are aware of it. They know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You get what you pay for. There are no quick fixes.

About Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including, and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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