Cosmetic surgery and reconstructive surgery—and plastic surgery, for that matter—are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be. So let’s clear up the confusion here and now.
Reconstructive surgery is performed to restore function and a normal appearance and correct deformities caused by birth defects, developmental abnormalities, trauma, or medical conditions, including cancer. In fact, breast reconstruction surgery following a mastectomy is perhaps one of the most widely known kinds of reconstructive surgery being done today.
Generally, reconstructive surgery is considered medically necessary, so it’s covered by most health insurance plans, although coverage for specific procedures and levels of coverage may vary greatly depending on the plan.
Cosmetic surgery is performed to enhance appearance, usually by reshaping and adjusting normal parts of the body to make them more visually appealing. Think breast augmentation, liposuction, and tummy tuck. Cosmetic surgery is not considered medically necessary, so it’s not usually covered by health insurance.
Plastic surgery is essentially the field that encompasses both. You can think of cosmetic and reconstructive surgery as sub-specialties of plastic surgery.
Easy as they are to define here, there are some instances when cosmetic and reconstructive surgery overlap and prompt some special attention by an insurance provider. They typically involve surgical operations that may be considered cosmetic or reconstructive, depending on the patient’s situation.
Rhinoplasty, or nose surgery, is a classic example. It’s done a lot of times purely to enhance the appearance of the nose, but it may also be required to restore normal breathing through the nose and normal appearance after a bad nasal fracture.
Also, no matter the type of plastic surgery, the end goal is always to create the best possible cosmetic result.
What to look for in a plastic surgeon
There are no residency programs that focus specifically on cosmetic surgery, so physicians pursuing cosmetic surgery can have varied backgrounds that include medical school and a residency and/or fellowship program, typically in a surgical specialty, which is usually followed by attaining board certification in that specialty and post-residency training specifically in cosmetic surgery.
That said, there’s nothing to prevent a physician from opening a cosmetic surgery practice without having completed formal plastic surgery training in an accredited program. Though, physicians with significant experience in cosmetic surgery can become certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery.
A plastic surgeon, by contrast, completes a residency specifically for plastic and reconstructive surgery and is required to be board-certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery before beginning to practice.
The American Medical Association recommends choosing a physician based on their training, education, experience, and demonstrated practice history. Ultimately, though, experience and expertise in the procedure you plan to have should be your foremost consideration.