While it may be tempting to sign up for liposuction at the spa or let your dentist give you Botox, the short-term convenience and savings may not be worth it in the long run. Even though it’s elective, plastic surgery is still surgery and deserves the same amount of forethought and research that you would give any other type of major medical procedure. “Safety is of paramount importance,” says Jeffrey Kenkel, MD, and president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

Recently, a number of well-publicized deaths from complications due to cosmetic surgeries performed by non-board-certified physicians have brought the issue of certification to the forefront.

“It’s so important for patients to do homework and find out if their surgeon is a board-certified plastic surgeon,” urges Dr. Kenkel.

Though finding a board-certified surgeon sounds easy, part of the difficulty and confusion lies in the fact that a doctor may call himself “board certified,” even if he isn’t a board-certified plastic surgeon. Only the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) can qualify a doctor as a board-certified plastic surgeon. Other doctors may say they are “board certified,” but that could mean they are board certified in a different field, such as ophthalmology, or they may have taken a weekend course in liposuction. Some doctors who are licensed or board certified in other fields may decide to perform plastic surgeries because it’s a profitable field.

The only way to know if your doctor is a board-certified plastic surgeon is to do your homework. In addition to asking your doctor specifically if she has earned the appropriate qualifications, you can also check online at the ABMS website.

Why Is Board Certification So Important?

“Board certification doesn’t guarantee perfect results, but it does minimize your risks,” says Z. Paul Lorenc, MD, FACS, a board-certified plastic surgeon in New York City. Board-certified doctors have years of training and experience in their area of expertise. These surgeons not only learn to do specific surgeries, they are also trained how to spot complications and how to fix them, says Dr. Lorenc. At least one of the recent deaths from cosmetic procedures not done by board-certified doctors was the result of a lidocaine overdose, something that board-certified doctors are trained to administer, says Dr. Lorenc.

These surgeons are also required to renew their certification every two years, says Dr. Kenkel — a process that usually consists of taking a continuing education class, reviewing case studies or passing an exam.

In addition to working with a board-certified plastic surgeon, it’s also important to ask if your doctor’s operating room is accredited. That means that the office is sanitary and that the operating equipment has been inspected and the life-saving apparatus, such as a defibrillator, is up to standards, according to Dr. Lorenc. The office accreditation process even gets so detailed as to make sure the doctor has an evacuation plan, so if something catastrophic happens during surgery, such as a fire on the premise, the patient’s safety will be ensured. (Dr. Lorenc has an arrangement with a nearby local hospital, for example.)

Another consideration is if your surgeon has hospital privileges, says Dr. Kenkel. This means that if there are any complications during surgery, he will be able to treat them properly.

How to Pick the Best Surgeon

Besides accreditation of the surgeon and the operating facility and hospital privileges, there are other considerations. Dr. Kenkel encourages those considering cosmetic surgery to start by asking friends and family for recommendations and reading online reviews. After that, you should schedule a consultation with at least two doctors. “A consultation is an information-gathering session, where you learn about and meet your doctor and the support staff so you can know as much you can before you make a decision,” he says.

It is appropriate to ask your doctor for references, he says. “Often times, a prospective patient can relate better to a past patient,” he says. “There are a lot of things I haven’t been through, and a good doctor will most likely have former patients who are more than willing to share their experiences.”

The bottom line is that you have to be comfortable with the physician. “If not, that should be an automatic red light,” says Dr. Kenkel.