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CST Web Exclusive: Cosmetic surgeons feel the pinch as consumers tighten purse strings

Article-CST Web Exclusive: Cosmetic surgeons feel the pinch as consumers tighten purse strings

Nipped and Tucked?
Cosmetic surgeons feel the pinch as consumers tighten purse strings

Lisette Hilton
Staff Correspondent

National Report — Perhaps it was inevitable that consumers would cut back on their discretionary spending as their confidence in the economy plummeted. Thus, while some cosmetic surgery practices that have developed niches serving the ultra rich continue to thrive, many others are finding anything from shorter waiting lists for appointments to head-spinning dips in revenue. In the worst hit areas of the country, cosmetic surgery practices have actually shut down.

Coast-to-Coast Effect
In 35 years of practice, Virginia Beach, Va., plastic surgeon James Carraway, M.D., says this most recent economic slowdown has hit the area the hardest ever. This Professor and Head of the Division of Plastic Surgery at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, says he feels fortunate to have a reserve of people waiting for cosmetic surgery procedures; however, his reserve has gone from a four-month to a two-month wait.

“I perform 100 percent cosmetic surgery, so I’m like the canary in the coal mines in terms of what’s happening with the economy,” Dr. Carraway says. “Even though this is a stable economic area because of the military, people are holding onto their money more carefully because of the downturn in the stock market and shrinking value of the dollar. Most of the plastic surgeons I’ve spoken with say they’re experiencing from a 25 percent to 35 percent decrease in business."

On the West Coast, Sacramento, Calif., cosmetic surgeon Patrick McMenamin, M.D., says that the fuel, housing and food sectors are eating away at consumers’ ability to spend — particularly on the big-ticket cosmetic surgeries. He adds that states such as Michigan have been particularly hard hit with practices closing. The Midwest probably has the least amount of trauma because of oil and food production, he says. And while prosperous areas of California and Florida seem to be stable, many other cosmetic surgeons in other areas of those states, as well as in the Northeast and Southwest, are tapping their fingers, waiting for relief. Dr. McMenamin says business at his usually bustling practice has been a rollercoaster ride since January of this year.

“We were tooling along and had a real good December,” he relates. “Then, in January, we took our biggest-ever downturn and by April — we are actually ahead of our usual numbers for this month.”

However, Dr. McMenamin says that he’s in better shape than others in the state. “We’ve had certified nurse anesthetists, medical assistants and nurses calling here for per diem work because the practices they were working for have cut back,” he says.

How Low Can You Go?
To keep afloat, Dr. McMenamin says he knows of cosmetic surgery practices in Southern California that have lowered their prices by as much as 40 percent to compete, and “The overhead at most well-run practices is at least 50 percent to 60 percent…. When business goes down, you still have to pay your overhead, and cosmetic surgeons’ offices tend to be more plush and more expensive.”

While both doctors still have strong practices, even Dr. Carraway cannot help but be concerned.

“I have 10,000 square feet and 16 employees. I am the rainmaker. If I’m only working 50 percent, the expenses are still nearly the same and revenue is down. You can do the math and see the problem,” he says.

According to Dr. McMenamin, nobody can predict when this economy will make a comeback and what that will look like.

“We’re a global economy…and the whole capitalist system is based on trust and confidence — it can be a very unstable and fluctuating system,” Dr. McMenamin reflects.

Riding the Wave
Those who ride out today’s economic downturn are likely going to continue to hit more economic peaks and valleys. One hedge, some counsel, is to diversify.

“My take is that you should be willing to do fillers, Botox and other lesser procedures, in order to have a full-service practice,” Dr. McMenamin advises.

Dr. Carraway says he barely felt the nation’s money woes in the late 1980s because his business was about 40 percent reconstructive and 60 percent cosmetic.

Times like these, he says, make him wonder if going 100 percent cosmetic is a good business decision.

“It is a good, hard decision because cosmetic is what I like to do,” he says.

Another solution for building a more resilient practice, experts say, is old-fashioned customer service and its resulting loyalty.

One specific strategy, according to Dr. Carraway is “… [to] have a patient population base based on loyalty and referrals; people are not usually coming to you based on price,” he says.

Even — and perhaps especially — during the tough times, Dr. McMenamin says, it’s important to offer the highest possible quality of service.

“Value every person walking through your doors,” he emphasizes.

When the economy settles, surgeons, realtors and many others might find that one of the byproducts of this economic dip is more level, realistic pricing.

Dr. Carraway’s prediction?

“I think that we’ve been living on a pumped up, false economy in some ways for a long time, and this might eventually help us stabilize.” CST

For more information
Patrick McMenamin, M.D.
[email protected]

James Carraway, M.D.
[email protected]

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