The General Medical Council (GMC) and the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) have announced that the guidance they have developed to improve their members' professional standards for cosmetic surgery will come into force in June this year.
While the announcements are a welcome boost for patient safety, the new guidance does not, however, extend to laser eye surgery which is intended to improve vision rather than appearance. The popularity of refractive eye surgery has grown hugely in recent years and is freely accessible on many UK high streets.
Patients are often promised that it will mean they no longer have to wear glasses or contact lenses to correct their eyesight. Yet there is no requirement for a surgeon to hold any specific qualification or experience to perform these operations. Although the Royal College of Ophthalmologists offers a certificate in laser eye surgery, only around half of those performing the surgery actually hold this qualification.
Attempts have been made to introduce a statutory framework for refractive surgery but without success. Many have voiced concern that the risks of the surgery are not being properly explained to patients alongside the potential benefits, particularly in high street chains.
Andrew Clayton of Penningtons Manches' clinical negligence team explains: "We regularly receive enquiries from patients who were not counselled properly in the surgical risks and known complications of laser eye surgery and have had a poor and unexpected outcome.
"While many of the more serious risks are rare, they do occur. The effects can be devastating, including permanent visual disturbance such as double vision, blurring, halos, floaters and poor night vision, risk of permanent 'dry eye' syndrome, inflammation and serious, sometimes sight-threatening, infections.
“Poor information about post-operative expectations and the pressure to perform as many procedures as possible means there is a lack of appropriate after-care in some practices, particularly for those patients where the outcome is poor.
"Although the GMC and RCS announcements of guidance to regulate the practice of cosmetic surgery more rigorously are welcome, more must be done to extend the regulation of laser eye surgery."