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GOOD CARE: Advances in technology now offer customers less invasive options which could prove to be the biggest growth sector in the industry

GOOD CARE: Advances in technology now offer customers less invasive options which could prove to be the biggest growth sector in the industry

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GOOD CARE: Advances in technology now offer customers less invasive options which could prove to be the biggest growth sector in the industry

Every day consumers are bombarded by images of physical perfection; plumped, sucked and photoshopped to market an expensive ideal.

Beauty is a billion-euro global business, but while the lipstick effect means sales of cosmetics increased during the recession, spending on big-ticket beauty - such as cosmetic procedures - naturally declined. Now the economy is recovering, consumers have more money and the confidence to spend it - perhaps to fix that niggling flaw.

Although the major players all report that business is thriving, the wild west nature of the industry means the exact size and value of the market is virtually impossible to calculate. It is clear though that, despite a dip in business at the height of the recession, cosmetic surgery has experienced astonishing growth over the last decade.

At the height of the Celtic Tiger some clinics were reporting up to a 200pc rise in patient numbers year-on-year. Commercial clinics dominate the market, with around eight major players and over a dozen smaller operators. Current estimates value the industry in excess of €50m and growing.

In the absence of any centralised data here in Ireland, industry professionals draw comparisons with the UK which recorded a 17pc rise in all cosmetic procedures last year - including a massive 41pc rise in liposuction.

Aileen Gillic is business manager at River Medical Clinic. She says that, along with a marked increase in business, there's been a change in their customer demographic.

"During the recession, our clients were mainly successful women in their late 20s and early 30s. They could afford to buy a house but the market was too bad so they had few financial responsibilities.

"Now we're seeing people with more financial commitments, particularly older women with children. They may have had the money for surgery a few years ago but were too afraid to spend it. Now they're ready to treat themselves."

Although breast surgery and fat removal are still the most popular procedures, advances in technology are offering customers new, often less invasive options which could prove to be the biggest growth sector in the industry. In fact, non-surgical treatments now account for about 90pc of all cosmetic procedures.

"Non-surgical options have seen the largest surge in popularity for sure," says Gillic.

"As the economy has improved over the last 18 months we've noticed a big pick-up in skin refreshing treatments, particularly follow-up and maintenance. During the recession many customers were getting Botox once a year, now they're getting it the recommended three times per year."

But non-surgical doesn't mean any less painful on the pocket - for either the patient or provider.

"There have been massive technological developments on the non-invasive side of cosmetic enhancement and so the capital costs can be large. One top-of-the-range laser machine can cost €150,000 or more," explains Gillic.

"Ultimately though, ongoing non-surgical treatments are better for the patient and also better for the business."

Cosmetic surgery may be showing strong growth potential but it's also an industry crying out for regulation. Legal loopholes can potentially leave consumers vulnerable to serious health risks and practitioners open to litigation.

The Medical Defence Union, which provides indemnity cover to doctors in the UK and Ireland, says clinical negligence claims against cosmetic surgeons have risen significantly in the last two decades.

These claims are also 15pc more likely to be upheld than general medical compensation claims.

The primary concern within the industry is the standard and qualifications of surgeons. Many of the doctors carrying out cosmetic surgery procedures in Ireland have not had specialist training.

The Medical Council has a register of specialists in plastic and reconstructive surgery. But while advanced training is required to use the term 'plastic surgeon', any doctor on the general register can call themselves a 'cosmetic surgeon'. Many professionals in the field argue this is misleading and potentially dangerous.

Another cause for concern is the practice of clinics flying in non-resident surgeons from abroad. These doctors work intensively for a short time, and then fly home - leaving patients vulnerable and with inadequate aftercare should any problems arise.

The Irish Association Of Plastic Surgeons (IAPS) is the only body recognised by the Royal College of Surgeons and the Medical Council. Its members have been calling for tighter regulation for many years and president of the IAPS Dr Margaret O'Donnell says change is now urgently needed.

"If we have a body to regulate the taxi industry, it makes sense that we need the same for cosmetic surgery. Ultimately we need an overarching authority. Right now there are so many different agencies involved it makes it impossible to have one standard for the industry."

Aileen Gillic says River Medical echoes these concerns.

"We are definitely calling for tighter regulation of the industry, both surgical and non-surgical. The market is flooded with low-cost copycat equipment which can be dangerous or just give bad results at best. Government regulation would create higher barriers to entry but ultimately lead to better standards and outcomes."

A high-profile scandal has prompted small moves towards tighter regulation. In 2010, French manufacturer PIP was revealed to have sold hundreds of thousands of defective breast implants containing industrial grade silicone.

It's thought that up to 10,000 Irish women received the potentially dangerous implant. In response, the Department of Health worked with the IAPS to draw up guidelines for people considering cosmetic surgery. In recent months a set of comprehensive standards has been outlined at European level but it is yet to be seen if this has any real effect on the industry in Ireland.

"It's a welcome development but just a first step," says O'Donnell.

"The principles are completely voluntary so its up to individual European countries to implement legislation."

There have already been numerous civil cases taken in Irish courts by victims of botched surgery but O'Donnell fears that it may take a major tragedy to prompt any real action to clamp down on rogue clinics.

"Most plastic surgery specialists regularly deal with patients who need help to fix problems caused by previous sub-standard surgery. We've seen a pattern in other countries where governments don't take regulation seriously until there's a scandal which causes public outcry."

Technological advances and consumer awareness mean that having a little work done may soon be as mainstream as going on holiday.

It's predicted that 55 million cosmetic surgery procedures will be performed in the US next year, four times the number of ten years ago. While in the EU, the cosmetic procedure market is expected to surpass ��2bn in 2015.

Despite the high risks for both the patient and practitioner, the outlook is brightening up for the cosmetic surgery industry.

Sunday Indo Business