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Fame and the Recognition of Doctors

I loved reading the article “A Pioneering Force” in this month’s Town & Country (October, 2013) magazine.  The article highlights the career and accomplishments of Dr Kristi Funk of Beverly Hills.  Dr Funk is a breast surgeon who performed a double mastectomy on Angelina Jolie.  Like many doctors who treat celebrities, Dr Funk is bound by patient confidentiality laws and would have never revealed the identity of her superstar patient.  But as the article reveals, Angelina Jolie described Dr. Funk’s Beverly Hills clinic to the New York Times and effectively changed the course of the breast surgeon’s career.  This is the kind of press that surgeons such as Dr Funk deserve.  As a film actress, fame is largely an indicator of Angelina Jolie’s success.  But in medicine, accomplishment and fame do not go hand in hand.  The most famous medical doctors are those who find their way onto television, whether as talk show hosts or reality show spoofs.  The most accomplished doctors who do ground breaking work day after day will never gain attention outside of their own professional societies.  It’s highly unlikely that the average patient has any idea who performed the first heart transplant, or from a plastic surgery perspective, the first face or hand transplant.  But ask the average patient about famous plastic surgeons and they’ll likely name the entire cast of “Dr 90210” or a plastic surgeon’s wife from one of the infamous “Housewives of…” shows.   In the field of plastic surgery the doctors on the E! television hit “Dr 90210” became household names.  As I was finishing my training at UT Southwestern in Dallas one of our rhinoplasty patients told me she had only come to see my boss, Dr Rod Rohrich (Chairman in Plastic Surgery at UT Southwestern, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, past President of the American Society of Plastic Surgery, and editor/author of the Dallas Rhinoplasty text) because the doctors on “Dr 90210” did not have any available appointments.  I explained to her that Dr Rohrich was one of the top rhinoplasty surgeons in the world, one of a handful of experts whose opinion and surgical techniques are valued and studied by most, if not all surgeons who learn rhinoplasty.  She responded that she had indeed heard great things about Dr Rohrich but had she really wanted to go to a famous plastic surgeon such as those on “Dr 90210.”  Just to be clear, I have nothing against those doctors who participate in reality television or talk shows.  In fact, for better or worse, they promote the field of plastic & cosmetic surgery  and help people feel more comfortable about discussing topics such as liposuction or breast augmentation.

With regard to Dr Funk and Angelina Jolie, prophylactic, or preventative mastectomy has been performed for many years on patients at high risk of developing breast cancer.  The numbers of patients undergoing these procedures have dramatically increased with improvements in breast reconstruction.  The Town & Country article states that Dr Funk used a nipple sparing mastectomy technique on Angelina Jolie.  It wasn’t that long ago that undergoing a mastectomy meant that a woman would forever have a long scar across one side of her chest and she would have to wear a prosthesis to look normal in clothes.  But through experimentation and rapid advancements the breast tissue can now be removed through a small incision that leaves the nipple intact.  The plastic surgeon then reconstructs the breast during the same procedure and the patient awakens from either a single or double mastectomy surgery with normal appearing breasts.  Imagine the psychological boost this must provide, especially if the patient has been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Now she can face her diagnosis without losing some aspect of her identity or her femininity.  These are the surgical accomplishments that should gain national attention.  So I applaud Dr Funk and the many doctors and surgeons out on the front lines of healthcare who worry more about their patients than their Google ranking or the number of social media followers they have.

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