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Who needs to go to the doctor when we have the Internet? These days, we diagnose ourselves on WebMD, buy prescription drugs from overseas pharmacies and do plastic surgery consultations, all at the click of a mouse. Shocked and horrified by that last item? So was I. But, in a story that I might have expected to see on The Onion, The New York Times profiles a Web site that allows potential plastic surgery patients to post photos of themselves and a “brief medical history,” along with descriptions of the procedures they’re interested in. Then, SurgeonHouseCalls.com‘s 55 doctors respond with recommendations and price quotes.
That’s right. To review: This is a site where certified physicians give medical advice and compete for the business of patients they’ve never seen. Hippocratic Oath alert!
When I actually took a look at SurgeonHouseCalls, my disgust only grew. Among a sizable list of procedures categorized as “Asian Plastic Surgery,” I read the site’s sales pitch on skin whitening surgery:
In Japan, geisha were (and still are) known for their painted white skin, which represents beauty, grace, and high social status. However, the skin-whitening products are not used in such a wide scale in Japan today. Geisha paint their skin white in geisha-based ceremonies to celebrate their culture and background.
In ancient Persia, during the Achaemenid dynasty, farmers and civil workers used pure hydroquinone to keep their skin clear and soft.
See, Asian ladies? Your self-hating traditions go back to ancient times! Why stop now? Painting your skin white is a celebration of your culture! Quick, somebody tell Sammy Sosa.
Unsurprisingly, not all of these doctors’ colleagues are thrilled about the site. “Conservative plastic surgeons say it’s fine to send an e-mail message with general information about a range of procedures to a patient, but the practice of offering a diagnosis without ever having met a patient can be problematic,” writes the Times’ Catherine Saint Louis, in what may be the week’s most glaring statement of the obvious. Physicians quoted in the article worried about the poor quality of users’ photos and pointed out that it’s hard to estimate the price and extent of a procedure without seeing the patient in person. And as for the site’s legality, well, “offering a surgical recommendation to a distant patient may violate state laws, if the plastic surgeon isn’t licensed in the home state of the patient.”
Saint Louis goes on to discuss a larger trend of individual plastic surgeons doing online consultations. While some correspond with patients over email, Dr. Barry Eppley performs 20-minute exams via Skype. I shuddered a bit, reading Eppley’s spider-and-fly account of how he woos out-of-town patients. “They do move ahead,” he tells the Times. “Regardless of where they are geographically… people will come to you because they connected with you.”
So, what are the arguments for online plastic surgery consultations? “It changes the first in-person consultation, empowering the patient with knowledge of the procedure, decreased anxiety level and financial readiness,” SurgeonHouseCalls’ founder Jason L. Mussman tells the Times.
Now, at a time when Heidi Montag can’t stop bragging about her recent plastic surgery bonanza and a million other celebrities are coming forward to announce they’ve had work done, it can seem like everyone is getting these procedures, that they’re somehow necessary. We seem to have forgotten that cosmetic surgery is just that — cosmetic. If you have the money and desire to go under the knife and are prepared to be responsible about it, good for you. But if you’re too nervous to meet a doctor in person or can’t afford to get proper medical care? Please, do yourself a favor and just skip it.
Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.More Judy Berman.