He said the first issue to address was the use of the term surgeon.
Under the current law, doctors with a basic medical degree have been able to exploit a loophole in the law and call themselves cosmetic surgeons and perform major surgeries including facelifts, breast augmentation, Brazilian Butt Lifts and tummy tucks. Some courses in facelifts take just 15 hours.
Butler said he did not know how this had been allowed. “I don’t understand how you’re able to hold yourself out as a surgeon, without being a fellow of the college of surgery, which requires six years postgraduate study,” he said.
“We wouldn’t allow it in an anaesthetist. We wouldn’t allow it for psychiatrists or any other specialty, and we shouldn’t allow it in surgery.”
Opposition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston said Butler needed to commit to a date to release the review’s findings.
“The horror stories we have seen in the media highlight why this is such a critical issue that needs to be urgently resolved,” she said.
These comments follow revelations in this masthead that at least eight patients of Dr Reza Ahmadi were hospitalised last year after undergoing cosmetic surgery. One was Keisha Amoah, whose liver was liposucked 17 times and she had to call her own ambulance after her request for help went unanswered.
Another patient, Ella Callis, went to hospital after a serious infection that she says “smelled like a dead animal”.
The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency was aware of this and in April banned Ahmadi from cosmetic surgery but allowed him to continue to practice as a GP.
Health expert, lawyer and former nurse Margaret Faux said this penalty was grossly inadequate.
“He liposucked someone’s liver multiple times,” she said. “He was incompetent, working out of scope, unsafe and, yet, we allow him to continue to practise as a GP? What will it take before we say, ‘We need to get these doctors off the street?’.”
Butler said there had to be “real” consequences for doctors behaving badly. “I think we need to examine whether the problem here is the absence of proper conditions that govern these procedures or enforcement or both,” he said.
“And that’s what we’ll be looking at over the next couple of weeks… there’s got to be a consequence for people who commit and lead to these extraordinary harms that patients are receiving often permanent damage, not only disfigurement, but also damage to organs and, and other really significant ongoing harm. There’s got to be a consequence to that.”
Senator Deborah O’Neill has accused AHPRA of gaslighting injured patients instead of doing its job and protecting them.
“AHPRA haven’t just dropped the ball, they’re not even in the game,” she said. “This butchery of Aussies who’ve not been protected because of AHPRA failing to do their job properly simply cannot continue.”
Butler said he understood the extent of the problem and it was now time to act.
“I mean the first rule of health is ‘do no harm’, but in this area we have seen extraordinary harm done to people who’ve been misled, frankly, about the qualifications of the people who are conducting these procedures and the licensing as the video shows of the facilities in which these procedures are being undertaken,” he said.
An independent review commissioned by AHPRA will be released publicly on Thursday. Led by former Queensland Health Ombudsman Andrew Brown, it will address issues including the use of social media by cosmetic doctors.
But there are growing calls for a royal commission on the basis that the inquiry’s terms of reference are too narrow and patients weren’t provided opportunities to appear in public and share their harrowing stories.
Butler declined to commit to a royal commission, saying he was concerned “we don’t get bogged down in yet more inquiries and more reviews”.
“I think the evidence is very clear that this industry needs to be cleaned up and what people are waiting for is governments to act and do just that.”
He said he disagreed with proposed changes to the law that would allow doctors to use patient testimonials in advertising and believed social media need to be reined in.
“We have a strong tradition here in Australia that that health advertising is limited to a person’s qualifications, that we don’t have patient testimonials, that people choose their clinician based on their qualifications and this sort of fast food style pumped up social media advertising is an absolute disgrace. And I can’t see how it could be allowed in something as serious as these procedures,” he said.
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