Free Plastic Surgery – Why Can’t I Get My Cosmetic Surgery Donated?

This is one of those headlines that attract a lot of attention as the concepts of Free and Plastic Surgery go as much together as Peyton Manning and quarterback sacks. One of the not infrequent requests that I get as a plastic surgeon, however, is about this very concept. On my practice website and numerous blog sites, requests come in every week for some form of plastic surgery ‘donation’. Many of the requests go into great detail about why they want a certain procedure and they are often quite moving. While the idea of performing surgery for free seems fairly simple, it actually is not.

This can best be explained by my response to a recent request for a free breast augmentation with a heart-felt plea for an improved perception of herself.

‘I have great empathy for the concerns you have about your breasts, and wish that providing you with a free procedure were an easy choice.  Given the number of women who come into my office with similar concerns about their bodies, I can understand how connected self-esteem and a positive self-image are.   Providing surgery for free may seem like a simple and straightforward thing to do,  but there are many factors involved that make the concept of ‘donated’ surgery not exactly free. While any plastic surgeon can give away his time to perform the operation, a surgeon’s fee represents just a fraction of the total costs of surgery. The cost of the breast implants, use of the operating room, and the fee for the anesthesiologist expertise are other cost factors that must be accounted for and paid. The surgery center or hospital, implant company and anesthesiologist are under no obligation, and usually are unwilling, to provide services and materials at their expense for an elective procedure. Often times, these costs make up more than that of the plastic surgeon’s normal fee.’

One of the hidden costs of any donated surgery in this country is the potential medical-legal responsibility. Unfortunately, donating surgery does not waive any responsibility on the plastic surgeon for the outcome. Should any untoward events happen, such as a rare but possible complication,  the surgeon is still liable and responsible.  The possibility also exists for the need for revisional surgery after the initial procedure should the result not be ‘perfect’ and the question then arises is the surgeon again expected to waive his or her fees?   While many patients say they will sign anything to get the procedure for free, the legal reality is that there are no forms or waivers that a patient can sign that will legally hold harmless the physician for the services that he or she has provided.

One may wonder then how do they do these free makeover surgery contests, either done locally or even on TV? The answer is whoever is doing it most likely is not a board-certified plastic surgeon. The American Society of Plastic Surgery strictly forbids providing any free surgery as a result of a contest, promotion, or any other method of inducement which encourages a patient to undergo surgery based on an economic incentive. Doing so is an ethical violation of its membership and could be grounds for dismissal from the Society. Those non-plastic surgeons who do offer such free surgery are not bound by these ethical guidelines and merely see the risk as a marketing expense.

While a plastic surgeon may choose to donate his or her skill and experience for free, the rest of the costs of surgery remain, and are usually out of the surgeon’s control. The legal and ethical issues, that are completing unaware to most patients, makes donating an invasive operative procedure not quite the same as giving away a more traditional retail product.

Dr. Barry Eppley

Indianapolis, Indiana