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Tight times cut demand for major plastic surgery

The recession is putting the squeeze on the $10 billion cosmetic surgery business.

Yet despite tight times, less invasive options like Botox injections are on the rise, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports.

As the economy plummeted between 2007 and 2008, cosmetic surgeries nationwide fell 9 percent. Breast augmentation dropped 12 percent over the same period and liposuction tapered off by 19 percent. Tummy tucks were down by 18 percent. Yet Botox and other injectable drugs that make up the fast growing cosmetic medicine industry rose by 8 percent.

The report’s results do not surprise local plastic surgeons who have seen similar trends.

Bradenton-based Dr. Enrique J. Fernandez, past president of the Florida Society of Plastic Surgeons, says the report says as much about how his profession is evolving as it does about the current economic recession.

“As a plastic surgeon, my role is not to just do surgery,” Fernandez said. “Surgical procedures make up only 17 percent of my practice. Cosmetic medicine — the wide range of injectable treatments — makes up a growing part of my practice. They provide patients a wide range of options that are minimally invasive and more cost effective.”

Fernandez says he is seeing new patients every day and his practice, Bradenton Plastic Surgery, continues to grow despite the recession.

“People still want to feel and look their best,” he said. “Improving their image helps them improve their lifestyle and sense of wellbeing. They want to remain as youthful on the outside as they feel on the inside.”

Yet Fernandez admits he has felt the pinch of the weak economy. “When you are in a global recession, every business, every field of medicine is affected.”

But he gets help from satisfied customers like Cheryl Columber of Bradenton who tell friends and relatives, which grows his business through word-of-mouth referrals.

Life changed dramatically for Columber, 49, when she underwent liposuction and breast augmentation two years ago.

“I have always had these two pockets of fat on my hips that made it difficult to buy jeans or find a bathing suit,” Columber said. “I decided to get a breast augmentation at the same time, to go for the gusto.”

Then last fall, Columber had her first injections of Botox and Juvederm to smooth wrinkles and laugh lines in her face.

“It’s given me self-confidence,” Columber said. “A lot of it is more mental than physical. It motivated me to take care of myself, to lose weight, to stay in shape.”

Columber would not say exactly how much she has spent on cosmetic improvements but estimated the total runs into the thousands. But because of financial concerns, she admits she has put off her next injection of Botox, which costs about $500 per syringe.

“I just have other things I needed to spend the money on right now, but maybe I’ll have it done later,” Columber said. “I want to protect my investment.”

Dr. Braun H. Graham of Sarasota Plastic Surgery says patients are still finding ways to budget for the Botox treatments and dermal fillers that are done at regular intervals to preserve the youthful effect the medicines produce. But Graham also reports a slowdown in his surgery schedule.

“Clearly the economic downturn is having an effect,” Graham said. “Our wait list for surgery has been shrinking. We are still doing a lot procedures, but many patients are stepping down the magnitude of surgeries. Instead of doing a face lift, brow lift, plus eyes and neck at the same time, maybe they will choose just two procedures.”

Like many small business, his practice has had to make adjustments, Graham said. “We have reduced staff hours and we are offering a no-interest, one-year payment plan on larger surgical procedures.”

The demographics of his patient base also is changing, Graham said.

“We have had several patients recently who had been retired and now have to re-enter the job market because of their financial situation,” Graham said. “They are having surgical procedures done as an investment to go back into the job market. ”

His practice also has seen a slight drop in younger patients who often come in for breast enlargement or body contouring.

Still, both Graham and Fernandez say the lure of a more youthful appearance will continue to attract new patients regardless of economic conditions.

“Yes, with the onset of the recession less people are able to afford involved procedures, and they are not getting them at the same rate as they did previously, but many people realize that in a tight economy, their appearance is an asset as important as a strong resume,” he said.

A recent national survey by the American Society of Plastic Surgeon bears out Fernandez’s observation.

Faced with news of increasing layoffs and a belief that hiring is based to a great degree on looks, 13 percent of the women surveyed said they would consider having a cosmetic medical procedure to make them more confident and competitive.

Nearly three out of four said that in these challenging economic times, appearance and youthful looks play a part in getting hired, getting a promotion or getting new clients.

More than 80 percent tied improving their appearance to increased confidence.

Cheryl Columber agrees.

“It has really boosted my self-confidence,” she said.

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