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Health and wellness

Doctor jailed for 12 years over worst beauty treatment blunder in Hong Kong’s history

Judge slams ‘ambitious, empire-building and money-hungry’ doctor for exploiting legal loopholes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 December, 2017, 11:49am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 December, 2017, 11:21pm

A beauty chain owner was jailed for 12 years for manslaughter and his technician for 10 years, after a woman in Hong Kong died from an experimental cancer therapy sold to her as a health boost.

DR Group boss Dr Stephen Chow Heung-wing, 63, who was behind the worst beauty treatment blunder in the city, looked to the floor as he learned of his sentence, while supporters of technician Chan Kwun-chung began to sob in the public gallery.

Both Chow and Chan, 32, had denied one count of manslaughter over the death of Chan Yuen-lam, 46, together with a third defendant, Dr Mak Wan-ling.

Before sentencing the pair, High Court judge Mrs Justice Judianna Barnes Wai-ling took one last opportunity to reprimand Chow and Chan.

She called Chow an “ambitious, empire-building and money-hungry individual” for exploiting legal loopholes and using irresponsible approaches on gullible customers. Chan, she said, was driven by a steady increase in salary and good prospects in the company.

Both, the judge said, had to be severely punished to show the “disgust and abhorrence felt by society”.

After 98 days of evidence and 15 hours of deliberations, a jury of nine returned a guilty verdict on Chow and Chan last Tuesday.

Mak’s fate was left uncertain after a hung jury. Prosecutors will address the court again on January 19 to seek a retrial for her.

The treatment blunders, which took place in 2012, caused severe bacterial infection in the clients’ blood due to a lack of protocols and bacterial tests. Aside from the deceased, three others were left fighting for their lives in intensive care units, and one of them ended up with body parts amputated.

Beauty industry must face up to regulation

The “catastrophic” level of bacteria in Chan’s blood before she died was similar to that in “terminally ill Aids patients”, the University of Hong Kong’s renowned microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung told the trial.

The tragedy shed light on the booming but often unregulated industry of beauty centres that have offered everything from stem cell injections to body contouring surgery.

Sentencing Chow, the effective controller of the group, Barnes said the aggravating factors lay in how what turned out to be a fatal treatment was sold to gullible customers.

“Despite the fact that the DR Group was not ready to launch the [treatment], it was already marketed and sold to their customers,” she said. She quoted court evidence that Chow was trying to stay ahead of the game, because he had heard the Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital planned to bring in a similar treatment.

Meanwhile, Barnes said, Chow’s employees were told to “be friendly” with customers and “understand their needs” as part of a strategy to feed them misleading information. As a result, the victims in the case, hoping to stay fit, ended up forking out large sums for services from the group, before being asked to sign contracts with disclaimers stating the group would avoid responsibility.

“It is utterly irresponsible and disgraceful to require ... gullible customers to sign such a notice,” Barnes said.

She also slammed Chow for exploiting a government initiative for personal gain, through his misrepresentation to the Hong Kong Science Park that his laboratory there was merely conducting research, even though it was preparing the treatment in question for sale. The park normally offered discounted rates for firms hoping to do research.

Hong Kong beauty customer who died of blood poisoning was ‘most catastrophic’ case doctor ever saw, court hears

Almost 80 mitigation letters had poured in in defence of Chow, painting him as – among other things – a loving husband and a generous employer.

Still, the judge countered: “It is hard to accept the picture painted by [Chow’s] family and staff that [he] was not money-hungry.”

She said Chan Kwun-chung failed to do bacterial tests and put proper protocols in place. She did not accept it as just an “error of judgment”.

“[Chan] took a deliberate and conscious decision,” she said, adding that he had been aware of the woman’s risk of death.

Despite his lawyer’s earlier mitigation that Chan did not benefit from immediate advantage, Barnes said he would still be made better-off with a steady increase of salary and good prospects at work.

The judge also lambasted Chow for not showing a hint of remorse.

Horrific details of a Hong Kong beauty clinic treatment gone fatally wrong

The affected women had signed up for the cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cell therapy at the Hong Kong Mesotherapy Centre, owned by Chow’s group, in Causeway Bay. It required blood to be extracted from the patient, before being processed and reintroduced with an enhancement of white blood cells.

The treatment, costing HK$59,500 (US$7,616) per injection, was meant to be a cancer treatment at an experimental stage, but was sold as a health treatment said to be capable of killing mutated counterparts before they become fully cancerous. The court heard the method had been picked up from a mainland Chinese hospital.

A week after she received an infusion of blood prepared by Chan, Chan Yuen-lam died of multi-organ failure caused by mycobacterium abscessus septicaemia on October 10.

Another woman, Wong Ching-bor, then 60, had her legs and four fingers amputated, while a third victim, Wong Fung-kwan, then 62, had to learn to walk again.

Chow’s sister, a lung cancer patient, suffered from a fever and diarrhoea after an injection.

Hong Kong beauty clinic staff told to ‘seize the opportunity’ to sell risky cancer therapy, manslaughter trial hears

Prosecutors said Chow and Chan owed a duty of care to the deceased but breached that duty with such gross disregard for their lives and safety. In particular, the court had heard, no protocols had been put in place to prevent things from going wrong. Nor were bacterial tests conducted.

Despite deaths, still no action on Hong Kong beauty industry

Doctors are rarely prosecuted for manslaughter in Hong Kong. The last time a doctor was found guilty was in 2003, when a gynaecologist was jailed for two years after he killed a woman with a painkiller overdose while carrying out an illegal abortion.