Imagine a place where changing the shape of your nose or eyes is as common as getting braces. Where parents give their daughters cosmetic surgery as a graduation gift before they go to college. Where a nip here and a tuck there become like tattoos: once you have one you want another.
Before-and-after images in subway advertisements promote some of the estimated 300 cosmetic surgery clinics in Seoul's Gangnam district.
Looking for a place where beauty and a superstar appearance are just another product that you can shop for? Welcome to South Korea.
“The statistics say that one in five South Korean women gets plastic surgery; I say it is actually more than that,” says Joon Lee, the marketing manager of Seoul TouchUp, a government-approved medical tourism agency specialising in plastic surgery.
“It has become more like a culture. After high school graduation, we will have about a three-month holiday, in which parents sometimes encourage their children to have operations during this break, given that they would have enough recovery time. They then will spend a few years in college and once they finish and transit to the job market, it will look very natural.”
Step off the subway at the Apujeong station in Seoul, and the first thing to greet you are life-sized poster advertisements showing before-and-after pictures of people who have undergone the process of improving their looks at one of the nearly 300 cosmetic surgery clinics in the neighbourhood. The photos all show changes to the shape of the face, eyes, lips or nose; at times you might not believe that the before and after images are in fact the same person.
Walk along the street and you’re likely to spot someone with a bandage on his or her face. There’s a good chance that this person has recently gone under the knife here in the Mecca of Korean beauty.
It is no secret that the number of Asian people who are willing to travel within the region for affordable and more trusted cosmetic surgery is increasing dramatically. South Korea, Thailand and Singapore are among the top hotspots, while China has started to follow in the footsteps of its neighbours.
“Cosmetic surgery in China is booming. But many Chinese consumers perceive domestic providers to be sub-par compared with those offered in South Korea. As the surgery process is irreversible, those who can afford would rather pay a premium and come here,” said Mr Lee.
However, he acknowledged that as plastic surgery technology and technical skills of Chinese surgeons have improved, many clinics in South Korea have started to expand their marketing focus to attract patients from other countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand, as well as Asian-Americans.
JK Plastic Surgery is one of the clinics that is very popular among Chinese women aspiring to have the doll-like features of Korean celebrities, hoping a new look will help ensure that they will be able to find love as well as career success.
The clinic’s surgeons often travel to Beijing and Shanghai to introduce the service, discuss packages, and in general offer women the hope of a lifetime of being pretty.
“The challenge is how to get as close to the patients as possible. Due to the long distance, we have to use a lot of technology such as online consultation to create a more personalised service. We have set up consultation offices in China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the United States,” said Kevin Van Noortwyk, manager of the global business department at JK Medical Group.
For many people seeking to improve their appearance, he said, the preference these days is for non-invasive treatments such as Botox, Dysport, laser skin resurfacing and hair removal, minimally invasive cosmetic procedures or more light-based therapies.
“Things such as Liposonix treatment to lose weight and eliminate fat are very popular nowadays. It is very easy; you can reduce your waistline by at least one inch after just a single one-hour treatment,” he explained to Asia Focus.
However, a patient’s decision to undergo plastic surgery or a surgeon’s decision to perform it also must take into account psychological factors, especially for those who want multiple procedures at the same time.
“We need to be very careful in checking the sound mind of the patients. It is important to make sure they are aware of what they are going to do. The clinic would not recommend treatments when we couldn’t guarantee that the outcome will be beneficial,” said Mr Van Noortwyk.
Statistics from the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI) showed that in 2011, around 122,000 foreign visitors entered the country expressly for the purpose of having a medical procedure, and about 20% of these came strictly for beauty procedures, either plastic surgery or dermatology.
The revenue potential has not gone unnoticed by the Seoul government, which like many others is eager to raise more money to fund the rising social welfare costs of an ageing society. In August it announced a plan to levy 10% value-added tax on procedures such as lip augmentation, double-jaw surgery and body hair removal beginning in 2014.
However, strong government support remains one of the significant factors behind success of the medical tourism industry. Making sure all patients go home happy has become a priority.
“Since we opened our doors to foreign patients, we have been well aware of the conflicts that could occur between a clinic and the patients regarding their satisfaction of the resulting treatment,” said Dr Kyung-Won Jang, director-general for Asean of the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI), under the Ministry of Health & Welfare.
“Therefore, we have established the Korean Medical Dispute Mediation & Arbitration Agency (KMDMAA) to play a quasi-judicial role, with its mediation and arbitration legally binding, hoping to ensure that any conflicts would not damage the country’s reputation.”
Dr Jang said the agency was expected to more promptly conclude the sometimes protracted, expensive legal disputes between doctors and patients. Patients who believe they have been victims of medical malpractice are able to request mediation, with a ruling given within 90 days.
“To be able to settle medical disputes in a timely manner is very important for the medical tourism industry,” he said. “If there is a delay in financial compensation, the KMDMAA will first pay the victim and later collect the amount from the doctor or the hospital itself.”
The KHIDI has six offices located throughout the world — Dr Jang is based in Singapore — to serve as a bridge between foreign patients and clinics in South Korea.
However, the organisation’s main challenge today, in his view, is how to deliver the message about the country’s readiness to the world.
“We are changing the system to overcome language barriers, as well as trying to bring international behaviour and practices to the way we operate in hospitals and clinics,” he said.
“The trend of medical tourism will increase continuously, so what we are doing now is publicising our good service quality, well-trained doctors and high technology that come with an affordable price.”
Another reason behind the lucrative success of medical and beauty tourism in South Korea is its quality of doctors. According to Mr Lee from Seoul TouchUp, just getting into medical schools, particularly big names such as Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University, is an extremely competitive process.
“Becoming a cosmetic surgeon is very tough and there’s a lot of competition,” he said. “If only one percent can make it to medical school, only one percent of that one percent will become plastic surgeons.
“And they need to try something new all the time in order to stay ahead of their competitors. At times, they will appear on TV, books and magazines to publicise their clinics.”