Robot takes over taxing task of hair transplant

Dr Chow Yuen Ho with Artas robot, which can extract whole hair strands with a success rate of 90 per cent and in a third of the time it takes to do it manually.
PHOTO: Robot takes over taxing task of hair transplant

SINGAPORE - "Planting padi" is how Dr Chow Yuen Ho describes one of his firm's latest services.

But International Medical Group Holdings (IMGH) has nothing to do with agriculture.

Dr Chow, the founder and medical services director, is talking about the painstaking process of transplanting hair.

This is a recent addition to the many aesthetic treatments offered by the group's flagship cosmetic surgery arm, TCS Aesthetics Central.

"We offer everything, from head to toe. Double eyelids, acne-scarring treatment, breast augmentation, liposuction. Hair restoration completed the set," said Dr Chow, in an interview at his Eu Tong Sen Street office, in a tower linked to retail mall Central.

Transplanting hair is notorious for being a labour-intensive and time-consuming process, he said.

Known as "follicular unit extraction" by practitioners, it involves the one-by-one transfer of whole individual hair strands from the more "hairy" areas of the scalp to balding or thinning parts.

"A person doing it with a manual tool can extract, say, 70 per cent undamaged, whole hairs in the first hour. This will drop to half when the person gets increasingly frustrated and tired of the repetitive process as time passes," Dr Chow said.

This is where Artas comes in. A robot designed in the United States, Artas is a classic example of productivity-boosting automation.

IMGH bought the hair transplant robot for $500,000 in 2012, the first such machine here then. While that is a hefty sum, for Dr Chow, the gains are worth it.

Compared to a human, the machine has a constant successful extraction rate of more than 90 per cent and takes only a third of the time, which Dr Chow estimates saves 12 man-hours a day.

For customers, having their hair plucked by the robot is also less painful, and the rate of successful hair regrowth is much higher at about 90 per cent compared with as low as 30 per cent for manual operations.

So how exactly can he be certain about the effectiveness of the technology he buys?

Without answering, Dr Chow rolled up both his sleeves. While the right arm had more blemishes and wrinkles, the left arm was completely covered with smooth, taut, unblemished skin.

"That's because I've been testing all the products on my left arm," he said, chuckling.

He explained that before investing in any new treatment, he and his team of doctors check the product by looking up research findings and scholarly articles that support the claims.

But Dr Chow also takes the phrase "first-hand experience" to a literal level by testing every cream, serum, injection or technology on himself first, waiting to see their effects before allowing patients to use them.

Once, he even suffered from bad skin pigmentation for months after a test went wrong.

Dr Chow himself is no stranger to cosmetic procedures. Switching on his computer, he displayed pictures of an almost unrecognisable, slightly round-faced man.

"That was me," he said, with a hint of pride.

Now 40, the married father of two has a slimmer and younger-looking face after treatments, including botox, a type of bacteria-produced toxin often injected in the face to smoothen wrinkles.

An almost obsessive attention to detail is part of Dr Chow's trade, but it is also the way he does business. It is obvious from the uncluttered desk and clean-cut furnishings of his office, and the TCS Aesthetics Central clinics at Eu Tong Sen Street.

Procedure rooms are kept sterile and bare, while the minimalist waiting areas are tastefully furnished with comfortable sofas.

A small sitting room has a coffee machine and reading material and patients can wait comfortably there before appointments. But it was not always like that.

IMGH began with a shop front at Far East Shopping Centre in 2008. While the location is good, and attracted plenty of customers, privacy was a concern.

"You can imagine, some of the patients after the procedure, they have bandages on their face and they have to walk through the shopping mall... Not very nice," said Dr Chow.

So when he had the chance, he shifted the next year. The firm's new medical suites do not have this problem as they are in a separate office tower connected to Central shopping mall and there is a lift right outside the clinic to the basement carpark.

But the prime Clarke Quay location in the Central Business District does not come cheap for the business operators.

Without disclosing numbers, Dr Chow noted that rents in the area were getting "very steep".

"To stop from being beholden to the landlord, we eventually bought the place in 2013."

To cut costs further, Dr Chow also took measures to make full use of the available space, such as by constructing a loft level to take advantage of the 4.5m-high ceiling.

He arranged for administrative, storage and other back-end work to be done in the lower-ceiling loft rooms, while procedure and patient waiting rooms are kept spacious. This means that the clinics could have greater space but still keep customers comfortable.

The firm has a service centre in Jakarta which acts as a local and overseas concierge to provide patient services including scheduling appointments and arranging for travel and accommodation.

Dr Chow sees opportunities to expand there, and maybe even to the rest of South-east Asia. But for now, the main focus is on the business here.

IMGH also owns dental clinics in Jurong East and Hougang, and plans to open three more this year.

There, Dr Chow also uses the latest technology, a dental scanning machine that produces "orthopantomograms", or panoramic full-mouth X-ray images.

Dr Chow said these give a "fuller appreciation" with a single scan, compared with conventional, small X-ray images that show only one tooth at a time.

IMGH has certainly come a long way, from having only 10 employees when it first started to four times that number now - about half of them at TCS Aesthetics Central.

The firm is looking to hire more staff to support its growing business, but it is getting harder to get good people - even though there has been no shortage of applicants.

"We receive resumes all the time, many from other countries. But it's really no use if they don't have the necessary skill-set or qualities we're looking for."

Most of the firm's customers of cosmetic procedures are women in their 30s and 40s, but more men are walking through the doors.

"They are starting to realise that looking good is important, whether they're looking for a girlfriend, or to have confidence while doing a presentation before their bosses," he said.

And for Dr Chow this is the true business of his firm, and what brings him satisfaction.

"It's no longer just about looks. It's also about boosting our patients' self-esteem, so they can lead better and fuller lives.

This article was published on May 7 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.