How plastic surgery is killing people in Colombia
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In August, a woman died in Cali, Colombia, due to complications from plastic surgery. This is far from an isolated case – last year alone, 30 people died in Colombia after undergoing plastic surgery. The popularity of cosmetic procedures has led to the development of an unsafe industry in Colombia, complete with unqualified doctors and underground establishments, where the drive for profit wins over the health and safety of the patients.
The woman was in her forties when she died on August 19 in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, just three days after having surgery in a clinic in the north of the city. She had undergone three surgeries in the same day – breast implants, liposuction and a reshaping of her buttocks. The woman’s daughter said that her mother went into the operating room at 9am that morning and came out at 5pm.
After the tragedy, local authorities announced that they were launching an investigation to determine if the clinic in question was equipped to carry out such procedures. This woman was the eighth person in Cali to die from complications related to plastic surgery since the beginning of the year.
Forty-three deaths in two years
On a national scale, 30 people are known to have died from plastic surgery in 2016 and 13 in 2015, according to the National Institute of Forensic Medicine. While these are the most extreme cases, many more people suffer from complications like infections, scarring and loss of feeling in certain body parts after botched surgeries.
According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), Colombia ranks No. 7 globally in terms of the number of aesthetic procedures, both surgical and non-surgical, done each year. In 2015, for example, doctors carried out 548,638 procedures in Colombia. The most common surgeries are liposuction, breast implants and abdominoplasty (surgery to obtain a flat stomach).
"It’s crazy to think that patients run higher risks because their doctors are poorly trained"Lorena Beltrán is a journalist. In 2016, she publicly revealed the massive scarring she had after a botched breast reduction surgery two years prior. She told the Observers why patients getting plastic surgery in Colombia run particularly high risks.
Doctors can make a lot of money doing plastic surgery because patients pay them directly – there are no intermediaries. And there is a high demand for these procedures. That makes it a really lucrative and attractive field for medical students. Every year, many Colombians apply to medical schools offering a speciality in aesthetic procedures. But there aren’t enough places in Colombian medical schools, so some of the people who don’t get a spot end up studying abroad.
In Colombia, it takes four years to complete medical school. However, some of the people who go abroad complete much shorter programmes [often only between six months and two years]. Even with these lesser degrees, they are able to get licensed to carry out plastic surgery in Colombia with the blessing of the Ministry of Education.
These doctors do not have the same level of training as doctors educated in Colombia. These quick diplomas in no way compare to a four-year programme.
It is much more risky to get a procedure done by one of these doctors. For example, many of them offer combo surgeries: for a cheaper price, they’ll do multiple surgeries in one go. A patient might get liposuction, breast implants and a nose job on the same day. Doing multiple surgeries takes hours, so that increases the health risks for patients, who could have a pulmonary embolism or a heart attack both during or after surgery.
Even if there are always risks associated with surgery, it is crazy to think that patients run higher risks because their doctors are poorly trained.
There is little regulation around the licensing of physicians in Colombia and, even with an “express” diploma, it’s pretty easy to get a licence to practice. There are also major issues with corruption in this sector. For example, last year, a government official working with the Ministry of Education was indicted for taking bribes in exchange for licensing around 40 different medical professionals.
…and backdoor clinics
In Colombia, there are a lot of backdoor clinics. [Editors note: In these “garage clinics”, as they are known in Colombia, medical procedures are sometimes carried out by people with no medical training. Patients are sometimes injected with illegal substances. The clinics are regularly shut down after inspectors become aware of them.]
Journalist Lorena Beltrán shows off the scars after her botched operation in 2014. (Photo: El Espectador).
Many women go to doctors without the proper qualifications or to backdoor clinics because they are often much cheaper. However, there are qualified doctors who offer these services for affordable prices – even for members of the middle class. Plastic surgery is much cheaper here than in the United States [Editor’s note: In fact, plastic surgery in Colombia is usually two to four times cheaper than a similar procedure in the United States, which explains why 24 percent of the country’s plastic surgery patients actually come in from abroad]. Other patients end up in backdoor clinics because they don’t know any better. Sometimes, they just make the mistake of trusting a doctor who scams them with false diplomas – which is what happened to me.
In Colombia, when someone has complications or dies after plastic surgery, people often say “their vanity killed them” as if they were responsible for what happened. It’s incredibly difficult to hear that.
In reality, it’s these backdoor clinics and a lack of state regulation that kills patients.
Personally, I am doing much better since I had corrective surgery in February. This time, I was satisfied with the result.
Last year, Beltrán launched the campaign #CirugiaSeguraYa ("Safe surgery now”) on social media to denounce the current situation and to demand the adoption of laws regulating the sector.
While a bill concerning the regulation of the sector is currently under consideration in the Colombian congress, there is still a long way to go. Last year, for about a month, the Ministry of Education stopped licensing practitioners who had diplomas from four specific foreign universities while they carried out an investigation into the matter. However, the ministry ultimately announced that they would resume licensing graduates from these institutions.
Last May, the Colombian Constitutional Court also ruled that young people could start getting plastic surgery at the age of 14, as long as they had parental permission.