Plastic Surgery in Asia Pacific Won't Stay Cheap for Long
Everyone knows that plastic surgery is less expensive in most East and Southeast Asian countries than it is in the West. In a few Asian countries, plastic surgery can seem downright cheap. That's because many doctors in Asia are willing to work for less, regulations are less onerous, liability judgments are all but nonexistent, and assembly-line care is less costly to deliver.
As with Asia's other bargain goods and services, price seems to trump quality for the Western consumer, even in this luxury market. Asia's cosmetic surgery tourism industry is thus growing fast and beginning to make a noticeable contribution to many East and Southeast Asian economies.
Most Western surgeons compete on the basis of quality, while Eastern plastic surgeons are not the least bit reluctant to talk about rock-bottom prices. While conventional wisdom has it that patients don't shop price when it comes to cosmetic surgery and should be willing to pay a premium for experience, people have begun flooding into East and Southeast Asia to undergo some of the most delicate, complex, and risky elective operations.
Considering what's happened in other industries, it's easy to view this West to East migration as inescapable and permanent. But that's only true if one thinks of the more developed West's position in the world as static. It isn't.
In other words, it's a mistake to view the positions of major players in the global cosmetic surgery industry as static. As in all business sectors where there is emerging competition, prices will be as dynamic as they need to be to maximize profit and yet ensure continued survival.
Although Asia seems to be moving up, it is not the "sole mover" in this relationship. The Western world is moving, too.
Consider, for instance, what happened in the pharmaceutical industry, another big money business. As little as ten years ago, conducting research on new drugs in less-developed Eastern Europe was a good way for big pharma to save lots money on product development. Now it costs the same to conduct a drug trial in Poland as it does in highly-sophisticated Germany.
As demand for plastic surgery rises in the East, so will its prices. The opposite will occur in the West. Such Western price cuts are already becoming noticeable online where American surgeons now routinely compete with each other advertising so-called "specials" designed to fill up the empty chairs in their waiting rooms.
This same sort of rebalancing is happening at an even more rapid pace within East Asia itself. As plastic surgeons in Tokyo, for example,now demand prices approaching those in the United States, many Japanese patients have begun fleeing to South Korea. At the same time, less affluent South Koreans have begun venturing into Southeast Asia. American medical tourists may flock to South Korea or Thailand for care but very few ever travel to see specialists in Japan, no matter how good.
Of course, the current low-price leader in East Asia is China. Late to the game, once China revs up its cosmetic surgery engines (which is now happening full steam ahead), the patient migrations will again readjust.
In the end, plastic surgery prices in the United States will decrease while prices in Asia will trend in the opposite direction. The floodgates allowing Western services to escape to the East will finally close only when the cost of medical services around the world becomes more uniform.
While such change seems inevitable, is it necessarily all bad for the West? In many ways it is, although not completely.
If the United States and other Western countries can continue building on their present experience and quality advantages even as prices moderate, there is the ironic possibility that they may one day come to be seen as the very places to which the value-conscious global patient travels to get more for less.