A patient (far left) meeting a counsellor (centre) and a translator at BK Plastic Surgery in Seoul. South Korea's Ministry of Health said 79,481 medical tourists arrived from China last year, and plastic surgery was the most sought-after service. Based on Chinese industry data, 56,000 Chinese nationals went to South Korea to alter their looks last year, up from 25,400 in 2013. Image: Bloomberg
Shenzhen resident Chen Yili's life hasn't been the same since she put her faith in a South Korean plastic surgeon five years ago.
It's not just the crooked nose and facial numbness that are painful reminders of botched surgery - the 33-year-old now takes up to a dozen pills a day for severe depression.
She is just one of thousands of Chinese visiting South Korea each year hoping to improve their looks. But as those numbers increase, so are complaints of failed operations, dodgy middlemen and "shadow doctors".
Ms Chen Yili's botched operation in South Korea resulted in a crooked nose, facial numbness and severe depression. Image: Esther Teo
Ms Jin Weikun, 27, from Shanxi province, had breast enhancement surgery and another 12 operations in Seoul last year to remodel her face, only to be left with a lopsided nose, cheeks and chin, dashing her dreams of an acting career.
Beijing native Zhou Jun, 44, had a jaw procedure in 2013 to correct her overbite but ended up with misaligned teeth. Now, she wears a face mask. The list goes on.
South Korea's Ministry of Health said 79,481 medical tourists arrived from China last year, and plastic surgery was the most sought-after service. According to Chinese industry data, 56,000 Chinese went to South Korea to alter their looks last year, up from 25,400 in 2013.
The number of failed operations and disputes between Chinese nationals and South Korean clinics is also increasing - by up to 15 per cent a year, the Chinese Association of Plastics and Aesthetics (Capa) says. No exact figures were given, but hundreds of victims have reportedly started an online support group to highlight their problems.
More than 266,000 medical tourists - plastic surgery is not specified - visited South Korea last year, a figure the country hopes to increase to one million by 2020. The Chinese make up the largest group at about 30 per cent, followed by Americans, Russians and Japanese. Among South-east Asian nations, the biggest numbers are from Vietnam and the Philippines. In the most recent Singapore figures, it is not clear how many of the 1,211 nationals who travelled to South Korea as medical tourists in 2013 were hoping for improved looks.
To better protect medical tourists and a booming industry with revenues soaring to 560 billion won (S$672 million), the Seoul government has acted in recent months to clamp down on unlawful activity and ensure higher standards.
In May, the authorities indicted 11 illegal medical brokers on charges of violating medical laws and banned another 150 from leaving the country. Most were Chinese nationals or Korean Chinese. They had pocketed up to 90 per cent of the fees as their commission, the media reported. Ms Chen, for instance, was introduced to the clinic in Korea by a business partner. She forked out 165,000 yuan (S$36,000) for operations on her jaw, lips and nose - and later discovered the price was almost 10 times what local patients paid.
"The clinic was near high-end shops. It was very big and looked professionally run, that was why I was convinced to have surgery there," she said. "I later found out that my friend took a huge commission from the clinic. But since my surgery, I haven't been able to contact her."
South Korea's Health Ministry has since introduced a platform to report illegal brokers on the official medical tourism website Medicalkorea.or.kr and added a new list of estimated costs of popular procedures in a bid to prevent overcharging.
A new insurance scheme for medical tourists that covers up to 50 million won for injury, death and stress disorder was launched by the Korea Tourism Organisation in April. The government has also imposed a new rule that only board-certified plastic surgeons - about 2,200 of them - can operate on foreigners, even though current laws allow all doctors (including general practitioners) to perform plastic surgery in the country. Those found treating foreigners illegally could face jail.
Certified plastic surgeons applaud the moves. Dr Park Sang Hyeon, from the Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons (Kaps), says they have faced intense competition from non-specialist doctors, who are responsible for about 70 to 80 per cent of plastic surgery-linked accidents.
"Competition is stiff in this industry and GPs with no experience are lowering prices to attract customers," he said. "We can't block them from doing plastic surgery, but our association is doing our part to manage our member base so we have more control over their activities."
Kaps is also preparing a safety protocol manual and there are plans to install security cameras in operating theatres to deter the use of "shadow doctors" - young doctors or interns who take the place of more senior surgeons.
China is also taking steps to better protect its citizens, with Capa, under the National Health and Family Planning Commission, reaching an agreement with South Korea in April to jointly set up a qualifications accreditation platform for the country's plastic surgeons.
Whether a Korean surgeon is certified can be checked on the Kaps website prskorea.co.kr, which has a Chinese version. A list of board-certified clinics is also on the Medicalkorea website, which offers information in five languages.
Ms Jin learnt the hard way that she should have done more extensive research. She had applied to be part of a South Korean television show in association with a Shanghai broadcaster, but after surgery, she found out the show did not exist.
"I felt like a laboratory test subject that the doctors were practising on, like a chess piece being manipulated," she said.
Beijing-based plastic surgeon Li Jing said she has seen a slight increase in Chinese patients returning from Korea needing repair surgery in recent years.
"But we can't say all Korean clinics are bad. There are many with successful operations," she said.
Foreign patients can seek help from state agencies like the Korea Medical Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Agency. Their aid will be welcomed by Ms Zhou, whose attempts at getting her patient records have been stonewalled by the clinic. "If I can convince even one person to reconsider getting surgery after sharing my story, it is worth it," she added. "All I want now is a natural-looking face. I think that is the most beautiful."
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