Sun, Surf and Surgery

By Hail, John | Newsweek International, September 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

Sun, Surf and Surgery


Hail, John, Newsweek International


The Yan Hee Hospital in Bangkok runs what you might call a full-service operation. The gleaming institution--where staffers on in-line skates glide through the spacious lobby carrying files--is Thailand's largest- volume cosmetic-surgery hospital. Not only will its doctors snip those wrinkles away and fix the shape of your nose, the staff will also help you plan a Thai holiday tour, complete with hotel reservations. Since the baht collapsed three years ago, prices in U.S. dollars have dropped so sharply that Yan Hee offers some of the best surgery value in the world. No wonder Kent Nobbelin is happy. "I thought this was a good time to do it," says the 58-year old consultant, who recently had a face lift and an eye job at Yan Hee. His operations cost $2,100, compared to the $7,000 or even $10,000 he might have spent back home in Minnesota. "The facilities are great. My doctor spoke reasonable English. And the cost is much lower." Nobbelin, who now lives in Thailand, figures he looks five to 10 years younger.

Bangkok emerged as a cosmetic-surgery capital during the bubble years for Asian economies, roughly the late 1980s to the early '90s. The city's bar girls shelled out money for breast enlargements. Local yuppies flocked to get nose and eye jobs. But after the economy crashed in 1997, fewer affluent Thais could afford elective surgery. So hospitals began marketing overseas, and customers from as far afield as Tokyo and Los Angeles started rushing in. Yan Hee is one of scores of hospitals and clinics scrambling for their business. The patient influx "can help the economy of our country," says Dr. Songyot Chaichana, director of the Medical Registration Division of the Ministry of Public Health. "The customer benefits. It's a win-win situation." Maybe. Thailand's plastic-surgery industry is largely unregulated and operations at some institutions are botched. The marketing craze has sparked concern that some clinics might have their eye focused more on the bottom line than on bottom tucks.

Nowhere has the business become more commercial and successful than at Yan Hee. Billboards advertise the hospital's services. The hospital has posted ads in Japanese movie magazines and Thai newspapers in Los Angeles; it will launch an English-language Web site next month. Administrators plan to nearly double the number of plastic surgeons to 15.

Some institutions "use the doctors to make money for them," says Preecha Tiewtranon, president of the Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. "It's marketing. We try to advise the Medical Council to control them." The council is debating the ethics of advertising. …

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