What is a Plastic Surgeon?
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A plastic surgeon is a licensed medical doctor trained in patient interactions, trauma care and basic surgery techniques, as well as specialized areas, such as tissue transfer, body contouring and laser surgery. Plastic and reconstructive surgery deals with the restoration of normal form and function. It is a varied specialty involving adults and children and encompassing a wide range of conditions in different parts of the body.
Plastic surgeons shape and mould regions of the body like the ears, face, trunk, hands and other extremities. They also repair congenital problems, such as malformed bone structure in hands or feet. Cosmetic surgery reshapes normal body parts for aesthetic reasons, while reconstructive surgery repairs or replaces body parts damaged by accidents, illness or malformation.
How to Become a Plastic Surgeon
What does a Plastic Surgeon do?
Plastic surgery is so much more than "cosmetic or aesthetic" surgery. While cosmetic surgery is probably the most visible and perhaps the most glamorous aspect of plastic surgery, it’s a relatively small part of the specialty. Plastic surgery may be used not only to enhance a person's looks, but also to restore a patient's appearance following an accident or a bout with cancer or another disease. A plastic surgeon may work on nearly any area of the body, and many specialize in a particular body location, such as the head and neck or hands.
Plastic surgeons don’t own a disease like cancer doctors do, and they don’t own a part of the body like heart surgeons do. They work all over the body on all kinds of diseases and frequently with other physicians in a multi-disciplinary group. Plastic surgeons acquire special skills and knowledge, such as how to design a skin graft or create a flap graft. They learn how to transfer tissue from one part of the body to another; manage complex wounds; and use implantable materials, such as plastic or metal.
In addition to administering cosmetic procedures, such as face lifts, plastic surgeons may treat the bones of the face and skull; repair cleft lips or cleft palates; reattach severed fingers, toes or limbs; and treat congenital problems. Microvascular plastic surgery is so delicate that it requires the use of a microscope and tiny sutures finer than human hair. Burn patients often need plastic surgery to cover areas where skin has been damaged or scarred. Patients who have received traumatic injuries may also need plastic surgery.
There are five main areas of work in plastic surgery:
- Trauma and burns
- Cancer (skin, head and neck, breast and sarcoma)
- Congenital deformities
- Tissue degenerative conditions requiring reconstruction
- Normalization and improvement of appearance
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How to Become a Plastic Surgeon
After completing a bachelor's degree program (students must complete certain prerequisite courses, including chemistry, biology and physics), future plastic surgeons must earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) from an accredited medical school. A doctor of medicine program includes four years of education and training. During the first two years, students split their time between classroom study and laboratory work. The final two years place students in hospitals and health clinics, where they obtain clinical experience.
After medical school, plastic surgeons complete five to six years of residency training, during which they split their years between general surgery and plastic surgery. Typically, the first three years of surgery training is in general surgery and the final two to three years are in plastic surgery. Upon completion of a medical residency, students must pass one or more examinations to legally work as a surgeon.
Following a residency, plastic surgeons may choose to pursue a fellowship, which can allow them to specialize in a subfield of plastic surgery, like hand, craniofacial or eyelid surgery, hair replacement or breast reconstruction. While most plastic surgeons choose a specialty, all are trained in congenital problems of the head, neck and trunk, burn management, fluid replacement, breast surgery and other basic skills. Many plastic surgeons pursue certification through the American Board of Plastic Surgery.
What is the workplace of a Plastic Surgeon like?
A plastic surgeon can enjoy a thriving practice in either an academic or private-practice setting. Duties within an average working week may include outpatients clinic, surgery, on-call work, and dealing with any on-call referrals. Plastic surgeons collaborate with people from many other specialties including those from ear, nose, and throat; orthopaedics; neurosurgery; dermatology; gynaecology; maxillofacial surgery; and breast surgery, as well as other health professionals. A plastic surgeon can choose to limit a practice to one of these areas, or practice the entire scope of plastic surgery.
A plastic surgeon may also choose to become active in academic research in plastic surgery, which is very active in institutions across the country and around the world.
Dermatologists and plastic surgeons do, in fact, treat many of the same disorders. However, while both practitioners perform liposuction and cosmetic repairs on skin damaged by age, disease, or overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, the disciplines are different in their focus.
Doctors of dermatology deal with non-life-threatening illnesses such as chronic acne and also with cancers, autoimmune disorders, and sexually transmitted diseases. They focus primarily on conditions of the skin, hair, nails, and mucous membranes. While they frequently perform surgeries, they treat many patients by means of drugs, medications, and other non-surgical therapies.
Plastic surgeons offer optional cosmetic procedures including breast enlargement and liposuction, but they are more likely to perform significant restorative and reconstructive surgeries to treat burns, correct birth defects, or repair injuries to the face or extremities.
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Why I Went Into Medicine: Rahim Nazerali, MD, Plastic Surgeon at Stanford
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Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery: Johns Hopkins | Q&A
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