Plastic surgeons raise alarm over illegal beauty treatments in Hong Kong

Overseas medics doing beauty procedures, often in hotel rooms and sometimes badly, leaving local surgeons to fix the damage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 5:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 9:32am

Overseas doctors are illegally performing cosmetic procedures including Botox injections, laser treatments and chemical face peels on Hongkongers - and the local authorities are powerless to stop them.

Local plastic surgeons raised the alarm over the procedures, often conducted in hotel rooms in the city, after having to fix the damage caused by botched treatments. The doctors are breaking the law because they are not registered with the Medical Council, but are likely to leave the city long before the police or health officials can act.

The reports will increase concern over cosmetic procedures after a 2012 case in which a woman died and three fell seriously ill after undergoing procedures at a beauty clinic. Further concerns were raised by a coroner in January over the case of a woman who died after a breast enhancement operation carried out by a gynaecology specialist.

Dr Walter King Wing-keung, former president of the Association of Cosmetic Surgery, said he had recently treated patients who had undergone substandard cosmetic procedures.

"It's been going on for some time and we hear about these cases when the patients get into trouble," he said, referring to both foreign and local doctors who carry out such treatments. "But it won't be easy to catch the overseas doctors. You can report them … but they will be gone by the time anyone does anything."

Dr Stephanie Lam Chuk-kwan, a plastic surgeon with 14 years' experience, says the problem is not limited to overseas doctors.

"A general practitioner, after a four-hour course, could start selling Botox in his clinic," said Lam, who is president of the newly formed Medical Aesthetic Association and trains doctors in cosmetic injections.

While the risks of complications from aesthetic procedures - as opposed to cosmetic surgery - were slim, she said accidentally injecting fillers into a blood vessel could cause blindness or skin necrosis. Hong Kong surgeons had in recent years treated patients parts of whose noses fell off because of a blocked blood vessel, she said.

At the heart of the problem was a lack of regulation in the industry, Lam said.

"From a consumer point of view, it is a little bit of a lottery. It can be confusing who is competent and who is not," she said.

A Department of Health spokesman said anyone who practises medicine in Hong Kong without registering with the Medical Council is breaking the law and that such cases should be reported to the police.

Police said they did not have any figures on such complaints. The Medical Council did not respond to inquiries.

Lam said the problem started when doctors who were not plastic surgeons or trained in aesthetic medicine started chasing high profit margins by offering beauty treatments. She estimated that 80 per cent of doctors performing injections in the city were generalists, with 10 per cent dermatologists and the remainder plastic surgeons.

"This is all fairly new. It all happened in the last five to 10 years, and as a result, there's no such qualification as aesthetic medicine," she said. "Five years ago, patients had things done but wouldn't tell people. But nowadays, it's different … acceptance is much higher, so more people are getting work done."

King and Lam praised the health department's efforts, but said the recent ban on beauticians carrying out certain procedures did not go far enough.

The ban covers injections and dermal fillers, chemical exfoliation, hyperbaric oxygen therapy and dental bleaching. It was introduced after a woman died and three fell ill in 2012 following blood transfusion "therapy" at a beauty centre.

But light and laser treatments to tighten skin or remove moles are not included in the ban.

In January, then-coroner Michael Chan Pik-kiu urged medical regulators to set down guidelines on what operations should be carried out only by specialist plastic surgeons and which should take place in hospitals rather than clinics.