Inside the cutthroat combination of plastic surgery and social media

In South Florida, an area known for its high volume of successful and botched plastic surgeries, social media has brought a whole new level of craziness to the industry.

Plastic surgeons are blogging, posting on Instagram and creating stories for Snapchat that often show real patients undergoing procedures in real time. These South Florida surgeons — who practice under a variety of titles — are exposing each other’s mistakes, battling negative patient reviews, swiping each other’s before and after photos and pushing the line between appropriate and vulgar.

“We live in the wild west when comes to aesthetics and treatments,” said Dr. Adam Rubinstein, an Aventura plastic surgeon. “It’s hard for people who are not in the business to make sense of it.”

When it comes to plastic surgery, social media use is at an all-time high, with photos of pouty lips, big butts and flat tummies dominating Instagram posts. About 70 percent of board-certified surgeons maintain an active professional social media account, according to an 2018 survey of members of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. While doctors are building followings and luring patients, some also are fending off lawsuits and navigating the thorny digital frontier between promotion and misuse.

Likewise, Ramona Melo of Miami found Wolf’s practice by browsing Instagram while looking for photos and information on the eyelid surgery she wanted. Melo said she saw hundreds of before-and-after photos on numerous social media sites, read lots of online reviews, and spent two years trying to figure out which were real.

“This was a big life decision and I was struggling,” she said. After a couple of in-person consultations with Wolf, Melo said she had the surgery and is “super happy.” Now, she’s back on social media, browsing photos of her next possible surgery — a tummy tuck.

For all the upside of social media as a marketing tool, Wolf also has seen “the dark side” of the digital frontier. Pretending to be Wolf, an imposter create a social account with Wolf’s photo and his patients’ before-and-after photos. The person behind the account tried to dupe online shoppers, doling out advice and asking for an upfront consultation fee. Wolf said many people are overly trusting of what they see online.“The problem is with social media you could make yourself be looked at as an expert, as an unbelievable surgeon, and be a worthless piece of s***,” Wolf said. “Some people put exaggerated stuff on the Internet … extreme makeovers that calls attention to them. It’s very unsafe, but gets them out there where they can get ‘likes’ and attention.”

The situation could get better though.

Florida Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, has proposed a bill aimed at taming the unruly cosmetic procedures by requiring that anyone who operates a surgery center register with the Department of Health. Meanwhile, prospective patients like Jones are doing online research to protect themselves by learning whether their surgeons are board certified and hearing about patients firsthand experiences in Facebook groups. “You read about things like double infections and multiple blood transfusions and horrible scars and it makes you want to be extra careful,” she said. After researching online for six months, Jones put a $500 deposit down for a tummy tuck with the only plastic surgeon at a Miami clinic who is certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery. But the doctor she chose for the surgery passed away and Jones is now fighting to get her deposit back. “There have been too many deaths and infections, which is why I would only use a surgeon who is board certified,” she said.

Rubinstein believes plastic surgeons themselves need to protect the uninformed public.

We are stewards of our own profession,” said Rubinstein. “When people take a weekend course and open an Instagram account and call themselves cosmetic surgeons and the public can’t tell the difference, the industry needs a few sheriffs and I don’t mind standing up, even if I do suffer a few slings and arrows for it.”

Top 5 cosmetic surgical and minimally-invasive procedures

The world’s largest organization of board-certified plastic surgeons reveals the most popular procedures.

Of the more than 1.8 million cosmetic surgical procedures performed in 2018, the top 5 were:

1. Breast augmentation

2. Liposuction

3. Nose reshaping

4. Eyelid surgery

5. Tummy tuck

Among the 15.9 million cosmetic minimally-invasive procedures performed in 2018, the top 5 were:

1. Botulinum Toxin Type A

2. Soft Tissue Fillers

3. Chemical Peel

4. Laser hair removal

5. Microdermabrasion

Source: American Society of Plastic Surgeons

Trends in plastic surgery

The volume of plastic surgery in the United States is on the upswing

— About a quarter million more cosmetic procedures were performed in 2018 than the previous year.

— More than 17.7 million surgical and minimally-invasive cosmetic procedures were performed in the United States in 2018, a number that has risen steadily over the past five years.

— Body-shaping procedures rose in 2018, with a spike in non-invasive fat reduction, as well as surgeries such as breast augmentations and liposuction.

Source: American Society of Plastic Surgeons annual statistics report, 954-356-4661, Twitter and Instagram @cindykgoodman