Testing and Design Modifications in Handheld Power-Assisted Liposuction Device for Reduction of Vibration and Temperature; Balancing Implicit Motivations and Using Design Focused Discourse Can Improve Surgeons’ and Engineers’ Awareness of the Ethical Dimension of Technological Development in Cosmetic Surgery

Manning, Lindsey, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Allen, Timothy, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

My time as an engineering student at the University of Virginia has shown me how truly impactful my future work as a practicing engineer can be. Whether it was Intro to Engineering, Design and Discovery, Tissue Engineering, or several other UVA courses, I was continuously learning new ways technological innovation was positively impacting our society. However, it was not until I embarked on my STS research and senior capstone project that I became fully aware of my responsibilities as an engineer to also recognize the potentially negative consequences of my work. I chose my technical capstone project with the goal of improving the safety and efficiency of a cosmetic surgical device, but at the time was ignorant to the ethical dimension of my project. When it came to selecting the topic of my STS research, I discovered the importance of considering the psychological impact the cosmetic surgery technology I was developing can have on patients. By defining both the “socio” and “technical” aspects of my problem, I was able to analyze the holistic, interconnected contribution of the surgical technology I was developing and the human systems, like engineers, surgeons, and patients, that operate and interact with it.
My technical project focused on developing a procedure for measuring vibration and temperature emitted by a handheld power-assisted liposuction device and testing design alternatives to reduce the vibration and heat felt by the user. The success of this multi-level project was necessary to maintain both the operator safety and competitive status of the device in the cosmetic surgery industry, which has seen an ever-increasing demand over the past decade (The Aesthetic Society, 2019, p. 5). With the goal of improving the safety and efficiency of this liposuction technology, my team began by collecting baseline data to determine whether the device operates within industry standards. Alongside data collection, we researched and selected lubricants and internal mechanical design alternatives for the reduction of vibration and heat of the device. The primary intention of the improvements aimed at reducing vibration and heat generation was to maintain the safety of surgeon users, however our technical project did not address the psychological well-being of the patients undergoing cosmetic surgery.
With body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a psychological disorder where people become fixated on imagined defects in their appearance, being present in 7 to 15 percent of all patients seeking cosmetic surgery, it is important to improve surgeons’ and medical device engineers’ awareness of the ethical dimensions of their work (Glaser & Kaminer, 2005, p. 59, Sarwer, 2019, p. 303). For my STS research, I focused on the psychological and ethical dimensions of technological development and implementation through analysis of engineers’ and surgeons’ implicit motives and explicit discourse. Foremost, my research revealed that psychological disorders, like BDD, are key predictors of poor outcomes in cosmetic surgery patients (Honigman et al., 2004, p. 4; Jang & Bhavsar, 2019, p. 54; Sarwer, 2019, p. 306). In my STS research, I argued that the interplay between implicit motivations and explicit statements provides an improved understanding as to why engineers and surgeons have lost their sense of ethical awareness when it comes to technological development and implementation. I found that a proper balance between motivations driven by internal and external goods, with more prioritization on internal, and a transition towards discourse of design that has to do with intention and outcomes could encourages thought and dialogue about the ethical considerations relevant to the practice of surgery and development of cosmetic surgery technology.
Reflecting on my early years at UVA, I believe I had an “ignorance is bliss” mindset with regards to my social responsibility as an engineer. I think many young adults are similar in this mindset, with the mentality that what we do not know is not our problem. However, this past year I have seen the way I think and talk about engineering problems expand in new dimensions to consider all actors within the sociotechnical system. My advice to an incoming engineering student is to recognize the intentions of your work in both the technical and ethical realm, and to do so early in your education. Innovation can either be beneficial or destructive to society and the path these innovations take is up to engineers’ ability to comprehensively consider the interconnected contribution of technology and the human systems that operate and interact with it.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
liposuction, cosmetic surgery, psychological disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, vibration

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Timothy Allen
STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley
Technical Team Members: Trent Levy, Kevin Tarczon

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