Docs say more money from vanity than saving lives

SINGAPORE - In a low-rise housing block in the Hougang heartland, six clinics sit just doors away from each other.

Five of the six now offer aesthetics services.

Women can drop in for chemical peels, Botox, fillers, intense pulsed light treatment and even body contouring, which involves treatments using radio frequencies to tighten skin or high-intensity ultrasound to destroy fat cells.

This Hougang block is a reflection of how general practitioners (GPs) in Singapore are increasingly turning to the business of beauty, say doctors and industry watchers.

It seems that everyone in the healthcare businesswants a piece of the fast-growing aesthetic medicine pie, says plastic surgeon J.J. Chua.

Adds Dr Frederick Goh, a general practitioner who does not have an aesthetics practice: "Whether it is driven by competition or to make ends meet, aesthetic medicine has penetrated the heartland, even from as far back as five years ago.

"Such procedures used to be offered only in clinics in the city, but they are in every HDB estate now."

And despite the tightening of rules over aesthetic treatments in 2008, they continue to spread. The reason?

Perhaps it is because the aesthetics industry here is worth an estimated $250 million a year today, DrChua says.

The New Paper on Sunday understands that it is possible for some aesthetic doctors to earn up to $100,000 a month - comparable to top surgeons - while their GP counterparts earn 10 times less. One GP, who declined to be named, puts it in stark terms.

He says he makes between $10 and $12 per patient when treating common ailments.

"Since I started my aesthetic arm (of his business), I make about $300 to $400 a patient," he says. "Frankly, there is demand. Plenty of it. People here want to look good. So it is a bit silly if I don't do the same as my colleagues right?"

And many aesthetics doctors lead a high life.

Some, like Dr Georgia Lee and Dr Zubin Medora, mingle in high society, wearing designer labels and dining at Michelin-star restaurants.

The New Paper on Sunday recently reported that Dr Richard Teo died at 40 from lung cancer. His story touched many Singaporeans because of his testimonies before his death.

He gave an insight into the world of aesthetic medicine. Money, by his own admission, was everything and he picked the quick way to big bucks in his medical career - by switching from ophthalmology to aesthetics.

It paid off handsomely.

In the first year, his aesthetic treatment business "was raking in millions" and by the time he was in his 30s, he had a Ferrari, a bungalow and lived the high life mingling with the rich and famous.

Aesthetic doctors also often create their own skin-care ranges.

For instance, DrGL is a range of custom skin-care formulated for Asian skin types and climates by DrGeorgia Lee.

Prices range from $28 for a sun-protection lipstick to $416 for a bottle of collagen atomiser. These are prices comparable to top brands on sale at department stores.

A survey commissioned by the Ministry of Health (MOH) in 2007 showed that about six in 10 GPs dabble in aesthetic medicine.

Back then, GPs spent an average of 6 per cent of their time on the business of beauty and were still mostly focused on treating the sick.

Today, Dr Chua estimates that at least one in two GPs practise aesthetic medicine.

"That is to say, they spend half their time not seeing coughs, colds or high blood-pressure cases," he says.

There are about 2,000 GPs in Singapore.

A check by The New Paper on Sunday showed that neither MOH nor the Singapore Medical Council keep a register of GPs providing aesthetic services.

Only GPs who perform liposuction, a type of cosmetic surgery which breaks up and "sucks" fat from parts of the body, have to be accredited by an official committee. There are 38 such registered GPs here.

When asked, doctors practising aesthetics treatment profess interest in the subject. Dr Dana Elliott, who entered the field of aesthetic medicine in 2005, says he feels that he is helping the patient.

"My experience tells me that minimal change is all it takes to make someone look better." Dr Frederick Goh, a GP who is resisting the switch, says that he is saddened by the blatant pursuit of money in his profession.

The 44-year-old father of six has been treating common ailments like coughs and colds in the last 16 years and is still passionate about it.

"I have always wanted to be a doctor in every sense of the word - to be able to see and treat almost anything in a primary care setting. To that end, I was trained extensively and had postings in almost all branches of medicine," he says.

"The point of being a doctor is to help and heal. I love treating diseases and solving medical problems for my patients.

"And if I am not properly or formally trained to do something for them, then I believe it is not right for me to betray that trust and simply do it for the sake of taking their money to fuel whatever aspirations I may have.

"The point of making money is so we can take time off to spend it with the people we love, not drive around in an open-top convertible.

"Besides, I can't fit my wife and six kids in a Ferrari."

As for heartlanders who are experiencing firsthand the influx of aesthetic medicine into their neighbourhoods, most told TNPS they have noticed that their doctors are now offering aesthetic options.

And some say they have taken it up.

An Hougang resident, housewife Madam Susan Lee, 68, likes having aesthetic doctors in her neighbourhood.

"I can always go across the road instead of town for my chemical peel and botox. It is also cheaper," explains the grandmother who lives across from the block where the six clinics are located.

Administration officer Melissa Chen, who goes to an Ang Mo Kio clinic for her chemical peels, says the convenience appeals. The 28-year-old lives in a block just five minutes away.

"Plus, I checked it out, they use the same machines as the town clinics, but the treatments are up to 20 per cent cheaper."

Miss Chen confesses that she puts aside about $300 of her "almost $4,000" salary for her treatments.

"I spend too much of my pay on my beauty treatments now because it's so easy to go in for a bit of improvement," she says.

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