Over the summer I had the pleasure of some face time with Dr. Joseph O’Connell, Westport’s premier plastic surgeon, a board certified physician who maintains a practice dedicated entirely to aesthetic surgery. Dr. O’Connell is a graduate of Cornell University Medical College and he performed his training in plastic surgery at New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center. For the past 16 years, he has been honored by his peers as a Castle Connolly New York Metro Area “Top Doctor.”
When I entered Dr. O’Connell’s spacious, well-appointed waiting room, he was finishing up emergency stitches on a toddler who had been scratched in the face by an angry peacock at the zoo. A few minutes later the little boy emerged, smiling. Nearly all of the procedures Dr. O’Connell performs are elective, but he is also available to treat the occasional unexpected injury (though, it turns out, this was not the first peacock scratch he had treated), and he is one of the few doctors in the area to maintain an office with a full operating suite.
Q; How did you get started as a plastic surgeon?
A; Like a lot of us, I was an artist. I turned down a college arts scholarship, because I didn’t want to be a starving artist. I also liked science, and the only way you can really merge science and art and interact with people is medicine and more specifically plastic surgery. And then when I started studying and training in medical school, it was immediately apparent that plastic surgery was the profession for me. It’s “artistic problem-solving.”
Q: What is the favorite story you like to tell about your practice?
A: We’ve had a lot of things happen over the years. One of things I’ve done throughout my career is try to anticipate the future of medicine. Plastic surgery as a career choice was a move in that direction. When I was in medical school, plastic surgery wasn’t the subject of popular TV shows or magazine articles—not like it is today. As a practicing physician, I always try to change with the times appropriately. I graduated from one of the most prestigious training programs, along with two other people, in 1988. And if we could go back to 1988 and look at a video of the incredible things we’re doing now, we’d look at that video and say, “What on earth are they doing?” We’re injecting Botox into people’s faces for wrinkles. We’re putting things in to make their faces plump. We knew very little about the aging process in 1988. We’re using lasers that were virtually nonexistent then. We’re using radio frequency to do procedures. We’re removing hair with lasers. We’re still doing a lot of surgery that would be recognizable, but we’re doing it in a different way.
Q: What would you say is the differentiator for your practice? What makes it special?
A: In the beginning, like every other doctor, I accepted most forms of insurance, and I treated as many patients as I was asked. At one point, I was on call in five emergency rooms and had privileges at seven local hospitals. Around the year 2000, plastic surgery hit sort of the perfect storm. Two things happened. First, we had physicians performing plastic surgery around in the country in places where safety was not optimized. They didn’t have a fully-equipped OR. Our national society got involved and said that plastic surgeons could only operate in “accredited facilities.” To obtain accreditation, I needed to expand my office. I also decided to stop working for the insurance companies who were telling me I had to see 30 patients a day and could only spend limited time with them. I figured even if I starve, I didn’t want to play that game. So in 2000, I stopped participating with insurance, much like the concierge practices you commonly see today. It was the best decision I ever made. I could spend more time with my patients and not worry about looking at a clock. It wasn’t a problem for my patients because most had out of network coverage. So one differentiator is that we can deliver medical care free from the economic constraints of health insurance. And because we’ve been so successful, we’ve been able to invest in the best of the new equipment and provide all of the latest technology-driven treatments and care. We’ve also embraced the trend in plastic surgery (and medicine in general) towards less invasive procedures. With less invasive comes quicker recovery, lower risk, and lower cost to the patient. And those are all good things.
Q: How much of what you do is elective, versus surgery and procedures where there is a clear medical need?
A: That’s the difference between reconstructive and cosmetic surgery. Reconstructive surgery is needed, while cosmetic surgery (which some would argue is needed), is meant to enhance something that’s already OK. If your nose is normal and you can breathe through it, you don’t need a nose job, but if your nose is torn off by a peacock, then we’re going to have to operate. My practice is about 90% elective. And there’s only one reason people come in for elective surgery—so we can change their body to create mental and emotional happiness. When people feel better about themselves, they have greater confidence, and they can do all sorts of things that maybe they couldn’t do—or didn’t think they could do—before.
Q: What do you see as the future of plastic surgery?
A: One of the ways I look at the future is to investigate new technology and study the numbers. I look at numbers both of the population—for example, the aging baby boomers—and numbers of what people want. We have national data, and the non-invasive procedures that I do are at a factor of 10 to other types of elective procedures. That means we do 10 times as many Botox® shots as facelifts. So we’re embracing the non-invasive technology wholeheartedly. There’s an art to it. You can’t just buy a machine and start using it the next day. There’s a lot of training and mastery involved. The market leader right now is Coolsculpting®, where we freeze the fat and it leaves the body after three months. It’s effective and very safe. I used to have a huge liposuction practice, and cool sculpting has now supplanted it. We also have the space to deliver non-invasive procedures in a spa-like atmosphere. These are medical procedures that should be done in a doctor’s office, but we can make it feel like a non-medical experience. All the safety is there, but you feel like you’re in a spa.
Dr. Joseph O’Connell’s office is located in The Aesthetic Center of Connecticut, 208 Post Road West, Westport, CT 06880. You can learn more at www.plasticsurgeryct.com