Plastic surgery: under the knife

Beverly Hills has begun to ease lockdown in the way that only Beverly Hills could — by greenlighting plastic surgery. Patients are not alone in celebrating the return of what the Californian city’s sole dissenting councillor dubbed “boob and butt jobs”. A slice of the medical industry renowned for its high price tags has had its nose put firmly out of joint by the coronavirus-induced moratorium on elective surgery.

More than 20m cosmetic procedures took place in 2018, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Just shy of one-fifth of these were in the US, with a further tenth in the land of the Brazilian butt lift. But these are not the only markets sitting pretty. Some $18bn was spent on cosmetic enhancements in 2018, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan. The report was commissioned, as so many are, by an industry participant going public. It reckons the total will rise to $52.4bn in 2023.

Surgeons hope that pent-up demand will ensure full waiting rooms once restrictions on elective procedures are relaxed. Anecdotally, US surgeons who are rebooking appointments see about two-thirds of patients doing so. Lockdown has provided a new impetus for those still earning money: videoconferencing means far more up-close-and-personal views and — should it continue — more private recovery time. 

The problem is that many people are not earning as much as they were. For most, plastic surgery is the ultimate in big-ticket discretionary spending. Google searches for “facelift” fell precipitously from late February as the pandemic took hold. The industry has been buffeted by crises in the past, with cosmetic surgical procedures falling 9 per cent in 2008 — the year Lehman Brothers collapsed. Even in 2018 growth was just 1 per cent, or 2 per cent including minimally invasive procedures.

Bar chart showing the ten countries with the most plastic surgeons in 2018 and circle chart showing surgical and non-surgical procedures in the US as a % of global total in 2018

The industry has had its share of controversies. Faulty breast implants triggered a wave of litigation. The UK’s Harley Medical Group has twice entered into prepack administration, most recently in a deal that passed it to a private equity buyer late last year. More predictably China’s SoYoung, a marketplace app for cosmetic procedures and commissioner of the Frost & Sullivan report, is worth half the value allotted after its Nasdaq debut in May last year. As coronavirus recovery bets go, this one is far less than it is cracked up to be — even in Beverly Hills.

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