Becoming a plastic surgeon and becoming a cosmetic surgeon are distinctly different career paths. Both fields involve surgery to change or enhance a patient's appearance, and both require you have a medical license. Beyond that, the requirements for a certified plastic surgeon are much stiffer. Even the type of work the two surgeons can do differs.
Cosmetic surgery makes patients look better. This includes procedures such as liposuction, breast implants and facelifts. What all cosmetic surgery has in common is that it's elective -- the patient's body works, there are no medical problems, so the surgery is optional rather than vital. There are no residency programs that specialize in cosmetic surgery, so the field is staffed with doctors from other fields. The doctor providing your cosmetic surgery could have acquired his board certification in opthalmology or gynecology.
Plastic surgeons perform reconstructive surgery. For example, they operate on patients to correct face and body defects caused by birth disorders or injuries caused by combat, fire or illness. Like a cosmetic surgeon, you can call yourself a plastic surgeon even if you've had no actual surgical training. Becoming a board-certified plastic surgeon isn't mandatory, but it helps establish you as someone who's actually trained in your specialty.
Medical licensing isn't specialty specific. If you want to enter the cosmetic surgery field, a weekend course may qualify you to perform some procedures, provided you do have a medical license. If you want to establish your credentials, though, you can apply to a group such as the American Board of Cosmetic Surgeons for certification. This requires passing the board's exams, and taking continuing education to maintain your certification. If you're certified in another medical field, most states don't require you to say so if you advertise yourself as a board-certified cosmetic surgeon.
The path to becoming a certified plastic surgeon is a lot harder. You'll need at least five or six years of surgical training after you graduate medical school, including a residency specializing in plastic surgery. The specialized training includes not only surgical training but training for emergencies: if something goes wrong during an operation, a certified surgeon has been trained to handle it. You can also certify in a subspecialty, such as head and neck surgery or hand surgery.
- WMBF News: Cosmetic vs. Plastic: Is Your Surgeon Certified?
- American Board of Cosmetic Surgery: Cosmetic Surgery vs. Plastic Surgery
- American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery: Credentials: Why Select a Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon?
- American Board of Medical Specialties: About Board Certification
- ABMS: Plastic Surgery
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