Brides turn to doctors to help them look better for big day

Some physicians have responded by targeting their services to this niche market. But ethicists say doctors must be careful in their approaches.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted March 22, 2010

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Wedding preparations for many brides include calls to caterers, bands, ministers -- and physicians.

Wedding experts say brides increasingly are seeking out medical help to look and feel better for their big days, looking for such services as cosmetic procedures, laser eye surgery and weight loss.

"There's definitely a lot of self-improvement when brides are planning their weddings," said Brian Lawrence, owner of Local Traffic Builder, a wedding industry Web site company based in River Edge, N.Y. "And there is tremendous motivation for a bride to look her best and feel her best, and that is what the medical profession specializes in."

As a result, some physicians are pitching their services toward brides, in hopes of establishing a relationship that lasts past the march down the aisle.

Derek A. Jones, MD, of Pensacola, Fla., said he uses bridal expos as part of his practice's marketing strategy. Dr. Jones, who is board-certified in both otolaryngology and facial plastic and reconstructive surgery, said he doesn't know exactly how many patients book procedures in response to his display at bridal shows, but he believes the events introduce his practice to those who may book a procedure at some point. His practice also has exhibited at events to raise breast cancer awareness and at other events that attract large numbers of women.

"It's exposure to the demographic that we want to be in front of the most: women who have an interest in looking good for a particular event or just in general," Dr. Jones said.

The Medical Center Clinic, where he practices, exhibited at a local bridal expo in January. The clinic, which has been participating in the event for the past five years, spent a few hundred dollars to set up its exhibit. Brides, their mothers, mothers of grooms and members of the bridal party stopped by for information about the practice's dermatologists, cosmetic surgeons and ophthalmologists. About 400 attendees provided e-mail addresses for the practice's mailing list. The practice also awarded door prizes to several of the attendees.

Dr. Jones, who sometimes joins his staff at the booth, says the event is worth the investment, because it puts him and other physicians in front of potential patients already thinking about getting the kind of medical procedures they provide.

Because most people spend at least a year preparing for a wedding, event participation helps physicians get in front of them early. Timing can be everything, since some procedures, particularly those that require healing, can't be done too soon before a big event.

What's the market?

The exact number of physicians who exhibit at bridal expos, advertise in relevant publications or promote "bridal specials" on their Web sites is unknown. Nor are there good statistics on how much those involved in wedding preparation spend on physician services.

The recent economic downturn has meant less money being spent on weddings. Even so, more than $59 billion was spent in 2008, according to Wedding Report Inc., which monitors the industry. This included $274 million for weight-loss services, although most probably were not provided by a physician, experts said.

"Brides want to make sure they fit into the dress," said Shane McMurray, CEO and founder of the Wedding Report. "And I definitely see growth in the [medical services] market."

But although this segment may be ripe for various types of cosmetic procedures, physicians who already market to those getting married say it is not a big part of their practices. Rather, it is part of an overall marketing strategy targeting a particular demographic, or it is in response to patient demand.

For example, Ellen Marmur, MD, chief of the division of dermatology and cosmetic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, lists a "wedding special" on her Web site. Bridal parties can book and receive several services at the same time and at a discount. They also get a private waiting room.

"I have been offering this for about four years, because the bride comes in and says, 'My mother really wants to come in at the same time.' It makes a special experience out of it," Dr. Marmur said. "But the services are not different from what I would do in a normal cosmetic treatment. We don't offer food or drinks, but they get to be together."

Ethical considerations

Targeted promotions, including at bridal expos, are not specifically barred by any regulations or medical society guidelines. American Medical Association policy states that physicians can publicize themselves through any means but must not be misleading, either through false statements or by omission. Other medical society guidelines and Federal Trade Commission rules have similar language.

Yet medical ethics experts raise concerns that pressure on brides to create a "perfect" day will lead some to get medical procedures they don't really want.

"We can look at brides as a special population that may have special vulnerability," said Charles Zacks, MD, chair of the American Academy of Ophthalmology's ethics committee.

Others question whether physicians are jeopardizing their professionalism.

"If we market ourselves next to those selling wedding cakes, can we claim the privileges and respect and public trust and what it means to be a professional?" said Howard Brody, MD, PhD, director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. "I think doctors would be ill-advised to give up their commitment to professionalism."

But physicians who do market to prospective brides counter that professionalism should not be affected when this marketing is done well. Accurate information can be presented in the bridal expo settings, and these events can be a way of increasing awareness about various procedures.

"If any surgeon wants to market in this way, I don't see why they cannot as long as they follow guidelines. Brides are huge consumers of goods and services, but they are not only looking for a dress. They are also looking for medical services." said Marguerite McDonald, MD, president of the International Society of Refractive Surgery of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. She has exhibited at bridal fairs in New Orleans and hopes to do so again in Lynbrook, N.Y., where she recently moved.

Some physicians say, however, that getting married is not necessarily when people most want medical services that benefit their looks. For example, Mark Berman, MD, president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, has never marketed directly to brides, although he has been contacted frequently by various companies asking him to do so. He generally has found that people seem more interested in his services at other junctures in life.

"Divorces are great motivating factors for people to look better," said Dr. Berman, who practices in the Los Angeles area. "I have more people come to me when they are newly single than about to be newly wed."

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