The psychological and social characteristics of patients referred for NHS cosmetic surgery: Quantifying clinical need

Cook, Sharon, Rosser, Robert, Toone, Helen, Ian James, M. and Salmon, Peter (2006) The psychological and social characteristics of patients referred for NHS cosmetic surgery: Quantifying clinical need. Journal of Plastic, Reconstructive & Aesthetic Surgery, 59 (1). pp. 54-64. ISSN 17486815

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Elective cosmetic surgery is expanding in the UK in both the public and private sectors. Because resources are constrained, many cosmetic procedures are being excluded within the National Health Service. If guidelines on who can receive such surgery are to be evidence-based, information is needed about the level of dysfunction in patients referred for elective surgery and whether this is related to their degree of physical abnormality.

Consecutive patients referred to a regional plastic surgery and burns unit for assessment for elective cosmetic surgery completed standardised measures of physical and psychosocial dysfunction, and indicated their perception of the degree of their abnormality and their preoccupation with it. We distinguished between patients referred for physical reasons or appearance reasons only, and compared levels of physical and psychosocial dysfunction in each with published values for community and clinical samples. Surgeons indicated patients' degree of objective abnormality, and we identified the relationship of dysfunction with perceived and objective abnormality and preoccupation.

Whether patients sought surgery for physical or appearance reasons, physical function was normal. Those seeking surgery for appearance reasons only had moderate psychosocial dysfunction, but were not as impaired as clinical groups with psychological problems. Patients seeking the correction of minor skin lesions for purely appearance reasons reported excellent physical and psychosocial function. Level of function was related (negatively) to patients' preoccupation with abnormality rather than to their perceived or objective abnormality.

In general, patients referred for elective cosmetic surgery did not present with significant levels of dysfunction. Moreover, levels of functioning were related to preoccupation rather than to objective abnormality. Therefore, for most patients, whether surgical treatment is generally appropriate is questionable. Future guidelines must seek to identify the small minority who do have a clinical need for surgery.

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