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The health minister has declared the country deserves better than being misled by cosmetic surgeons, some of whom have left patients disfigured, as the states and territories consider unwinding a ban on testimonials in the industry.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed last week how some cosmetic surgeons had built huge followings on social media, spruiking their patients’ new breasts, buttocks and muscled physiques to a generation inundated with images of surgically enhanced ideals of beauty online.
But some cosmetic surgeons failed to live up to their glitzy advertising, using heavy-handed legal tactics to avoid negative reviews online from patients dissatisfied or in pain.
“Australians were rightly shocked by the devastating revelations uncovered by the 60 Minutes and Nine Newspapers joint investigation into cowboy cosmetic surgeons,” Health Minister Mark Butler said in a statement. “Australians seeking these treatments should not be misled by medical practitioners, non-specialist surgeons or those without appropriate surgical training.”
Butler would not say what action the government would take, especially on a state and territory push underway in Queensland to unwind a patchily enforced ban on testimonial advertising by the industry, but promised to consider two reviews under way. The Victorian government has recently closed consultation on further regulation of cosmetic surgeons — a title any doctor with minimal surgical training can use — and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency is looking at the industry.
“It is imperative that regulations prohibiting the use of testimonials and other misleading advertising are enforced.”
Senator Sarah Henderson
Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said in an interview that regulation of the industry was primarily a matter for the health portfolio but that ad standards applied. “So I think it’s important to examine how they apply and where there are any gaps in how they apply already,” Rowland said.
The opposition’s newly appointed communications spokeswoman, Senator Sarah Henderson, took aim at the industry’s use of testimonials, which critics have said are used to lure patients in.
“These unscrupulous and dangerous surgical practices are inflicting acute harm on many Australians, exacerbated by misleading advertising and promotion on social media,” Henderson said.
“It is imperative that regulations prohibiting the use of testimonials and other misleading advertising are enforced, no matter where they are published. There is certainly a strong case to consider tougher online enforcement action.”
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’ath did not answer direct questions about the testimonials ban, but said they would still be prohibited if they were false, misleading or deceptive under the proposed changes. Those that create an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment or encourage the unnecessary use of regulated health services will also stay banned, she said.
An AHPRA spokeswoman said the regulator supported lifting the ban on testimonials, which is being considered by a Queensland parliamentary committee, noting testimonials will still need to be truthful and fines for breaching the law would be increased.
“The change supports us to focus our resources where there is the risk of real harm to patients because a practitioner is being deceptive in their use of testimonials,” she said.
The spokeswoman said practitioners had to tell authorities whether they advertised when renewing their registration each year and declare they complied with national medical law. “We are in the early stages of random audits of these responses,” the spokeswoman said.
“We recognise that relying on complaints doesn’t address some non-compliant advertising if it is not brought to our attention. However, with over 800,000 registered health practitioners in the Scheme, it isn’t practical, or a responsible use of resources, for AHPRA to individually review the advertising of every registered health practitioner.”
A spokesman for Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, refused to comment while a spokeswoman for TikTok said the company valued authenticity and its users’ self-esteem and had policies against medical misinformation and undisclosed sponsored content.
“We continually take steps to strengthen our policies and promote body positivity including working with the Butterfly Foundation to encourage body inclusivity and support users who may be struggling with self-image,” TikTok’s spokeswoman said.
Influencers have previously revealed how cosmetic surgeons guard their image, providing discounted or free procedures such as botox injections in return for glowing testimonials while issuing legal threats over critical reviews.
A spokesman for Google said: “We have strict content policies to help ensure reviews are based on real-world experiences. Reviews that are not the result of the reviewer’s own experience, including paid reviews, are a violation of our policies.”
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