Uncertainty Looms Over Medical Aesthetics Industry; Physicians Remain Cautious but Optimistic
Updated: Jul 22, 2020
The Malaysia and Singapore governments ordered medical aesthetics clinics to close as part of self-isolation and social-distancing measures to reduce COVID-19 infections earlier this year. Both countries have recently allowed clinics to resume full services but demand remains uncertain.
Picture by Dreamstime.com/ Chansom Pantip
Like many medical aesthetics practitioners, Dato’ Dr Liow Tiong Sin from Signature Clinic in Kuala Lumpur was concerned about having to continue to pay overheads such as rent and staff salaries while the clinic was ordered to close during the Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia.
During the MCO he predicted patients would be slow to return, “I anticipate prolonged problems for aesthetic practices, as I suspect we may see only a gradual improvement in patient numbers once we reopen and it may be three or four months before we are anything like back to normal.”
His prediction has so far proved accurate with "only a handful" of patients returning to his clinic for treatments since he resumed operation on 2nd July.
“Patients are postponing their treatments because they have either suffered financially or don’t feel a need for them as they don’t have any social events to go to,” Dato Dr’ Liow explained.
“Patients are also still steering clear of clinics to avoid unnecessary risks to their health.”
The president of the Malaysian Society of Aesthetic Medicine, Dr Louis Leh from the Leh Clinic in Penang, and Dr Hew Yin Keat from MAC Clinic in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, have reported only a 30 percent and 50 percent recovery in patient numbers respectively, since reopening.
“My patients will certainly prioritise necessities over elective procedures. While my practice is prepared to see 50 percent fewer patients for three months after the MCO, it will probably take at least six months or more to fully recover,” Dr Leh lamented.
Dr Hew shared, “While it is heartening that some of my patients have returned, I understand their concerns about not taking risks with their health by avoiding elective procedures. Although we are hopeful we will return to pre-pandemic demand over the coming months, we are also bracing for challenges when bank moratoriums end and when patients and medical aesthetics practices must resume their payments of loans.”
Dr Hew is expecting patients to opt for less expensive procedures of MYR5000 (US$1175) or less in his clinic but he is more concerned that patients may be tempted to try and save money by allowing non-medical professionals such as beauticians to administer treatments that should only be done by doctors, or by trying products which have not been verified by health authorities. Such treatments can have severe health consequences such as permanent disfigurement, blindness and even death.
Dr Anna Hoo from Anna Hoo Clinic and Dr Lim Ting Song from Clique Clinic — both based in Kuala Lumpur — are more optimistic. A large proportion of their clientele are made up of health-conscious executives and business people.
Said Dr Hoo, “I predict demand will recover immediately after restrictions are eased. We have been inundated with enquiries since re-opening and welcoming patients who want to resume treatments to maintain their health and appearance.”
“While my practice observed an increased number of patients immediately after restrictions were lifted, we are limiting the number of people allowed on the premises to uphold mandatory safety measures. We are also scheduling appointments in a manner that allows for physical distancing, health screenings, and sanitisation protocols between patients, which results in a longer turnaround time,” she added.
“Fingers crossed; we hope to increase patient capacity by the end of the year, for as long as a second wave of infections does not occur in Malaysia.”
Dr Lim Ting Song from Clique Clinic in Kuala Lumpur reported, “When the MCO descended upon us, I expected weak patient numbers for at least a few months, but the clinic made a full recovery in just a few weeks upon re-opening.”
“I have no doubt that there will always be a demand for aesthetics procedures as they help boost self confidence and self image. Patients are even reallocating budgets that have been originally set aside for overseas trips to pay for aesthetic treatments to enhance their appearance.”
“In spite of the battered economy, patients are still choosing quality treatments over cheaper alternatives as they deliver better safety and efficacy,” Dr Lim added.
Picture by Dreamstime.com/ Roma Studios
Across the causeway, dermatologist Dr Angeline Yong of Angeline Yong Dermatology (AYD) and plastic surgeon Dr Matthew Yeo of Picasso Plastic Surgery are confident that the industry will survive in spite of the pandemic.
Both their practices were allowed to operate during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period, but only to provide essential medical services and procedures and not aesthetic treatments. Singapore’s Ministry of Health defines essential medical services and procedures as “those which, if not provided or performed, would result in significant or rapid deterioration of the patient’s medical condition, and potentially threaten his or her health and well-being”.
Dr Yeo said,
“Our facial appearance is connected to our identity and self-esteem and serves a social purpose, and this doesn’t change because of pandemic.”
Although his practice has seen an uptick of patients since elective procedures were allowed from 19th June, Dr Yeo does not expect demand to be restored to pre-COVID levels as governments continue to restrict international travel, which in turn prohibits medical tourists from entering the country. Overseas patients make up 30 percent of all patients at Picasso Plastic Surgery.
Consultant dermatologist Dr Angeline Yong reported that demand for cosmetic laser, injectable, and non-invasive lifting treatments at AYD has been robust since restrictions were lifted and the clinic has been able to offer its full range of services.
“However, the economic crisis from the COVID-19 pandemic may cause retrenchments and salary cuts, which will impact disposable income, and subsequently, demand for medical aesthetic treatments. Patients impacted by the recession may be more price-sensitive or even choose to hold off on treatments,” she said.
Mr Chen Heng Hui, Chief operating officer of Neo Asia, a distributor of aesthetics and dermatology products to medical practices in Southeast Asia, is confident that business will turn around.
“To survive, clinics must adapt by offering new products, upholding good clinical standards and customer service, and continuously engage with patients so they feel valued and supported,” he said.
“More importantly as an industry, we must embrace digitalisation.”
Neo Asia has begun selling skincare and supplements with clinic-specific codes online, so that doctors can still enjoy commissions although patients are replenishing their products from home and are not physically going to the clinic to buy them. Neo Asia is also assisting clinics with embracing digital technology by providing remote staff training and empowering them with social media assets and capabilities.
However, assisting clients in these unprecedented times do not come without sacrifices. Mr Chen said, “As we have been experiencing global supply disruptions due to COVID-19, product principals and distributors are working together to ship products to clinics so that they are delivered on time, even if that means paying higher freight charges.”
“The industry will also place greater value on digital solutions. Webinars will co-exist with, or even replace, traditional exhibitions and conferences. Businesses across the industry will also be investing in online communication and social media to better capture customers amid new norms,”
Mr Chen concluded.