China’s aesthetic medicine market to get potential boost
The science of beauty
Published: Jan 28, 2021 06:38 PM

A pedestrian walks past an advertisement for a plastic surgery clinic at a subway station in Seoul on March 26, 2014. The South Korean capital used to be a hot spot for Chinese women to undergo plastic surgery. Photo: VCG

China's top education authority recently announced strong support for the establishment of aesthetic medicine disciplines and personnel training in the country. The announcement has won applause from pursuers of beauty, many of whom are saying that the move could mean they would no longer need to risk going to an unfamiliar country like South Korea or Japan to undergo cosmetic surgery.

Controversial proposals 

According to the official website of China's Ministry of Education, the ministry is making four proposals for developing aesthetic medicine: the establishment of "Aesthetic Medicine" as a second-level discipline under the first-level discipline "Medicine," listing aesthetic medicine as a major in undergraduate catalogs, creating a standardized training base for aesthetic medicine practitioners and improving the examination system for attending physicians in the field.

The hashtag related to the announcement began trending on Sina Weibo, with many Chinese netizens expressing their excitement and support for the move. 

"Support! Cultivating medical and aesthetic professionals in universities will improve the overall professional level of this industry, and reduce aesthetic medicine accidents," one Chinese netizen wrote on Sina Weibo.

"If it can improve China's cosmetic surgery standards, that would be good for me because I wouldn't need to go abroad to a place where I do not understand the language and worry that my plastic surgery might fail," another netizen wrote. 

However, many Chinese experts in the field are against the first two proposals, saying it would be "irresponsible to establish aesthetic medicine as an undergraduate major."

Jiang Haiyue, dean of the Plastic Surgery Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College, told the Global Times that a qualified doctor of aesthetic medicine needs to master skills in clinical medicine, which is why aesthetic medicine is currently a small branch of clinical medicine instead of a second-level discipline.

"Carrying out plastic surgery not only requires the doctor to handle the specific organ being worked on well, but also requires him to master emergency treatment of the patient's organs," he explained, noting that a lack of skills is one of the reasons behind some tragedies in China and South Korea, in which patients die from post-surgery abnormal organ reactions. 

In the 1990s, very few universities in China offered undergraduate aesthetic medicine majors. Those that did open it were very unsuccessful as students lacked basic theoretical foundation in their undergraduate studies, which barred them from finding internships or jobs.

Luan Jie, director of the Chinese Medical Association's Chinese Society of Plastic Surgery, echoed Jiang's view, telling the Global Times that a qualified doctor of aesthetic medicine usually needs to spend at least 10 to 11 years studying in the field, but an undergraduate degree  only lasts five years, so he worries that this short time may lead to an increase in medical students who are not up to standard. 

"This is playing around with the lives of these patients," Luan said, going on to suggest that establishing an international standard system for specialist doctors in China should be a better way to regulate the field. 

"China's market in aesthetic medicine is surely growing as more people of all ages are trying to look good. But the entire industry is currently in chaos. If the standard for entering the industry in the future requires one to pass an official assessment, the medical aesthetics industry is bound to be better regulated," said Luan. 

Growing market 

Currently, Chinese universities have established master and PhD degrees in aesthetic medicine, and the demand for highly educated professionals with master's or doctoral degrees in medical aesthetics is high, and many hospitals are willing to use high salaries to attract these professionals.

According to media reports, China in 2020 established 5,150 new medical aesthetics institutions, and the medical aesthetics market reached 197.5 billion yuan ($30.5 billion), accounting for 17 percent of the world total. China is expected to become the world's largest aesthetic medicine market as its scale will exceed 400 billion yuan in the next five years.

According to Jiang, going to other countries like Japan and South Korea for a plastic sugary is not necessary because plastic surgery standards in China, Japan, and South Korea are the same. However, due to the differences in culture, the Chinese market is not as well publicized as the other two countries.

He pointed out that many South Korean stars took part in advertisements for their countries' surgery institutions and that they have a more open attitude toward admitting whether they had gone under the knife, while in China, many showbiz stars refuse to admit that they have had plastic surgery because traditional Chinese culture tends to advocate natural beauty.