The aesthetic medicine market in China is estimated to hit 197.5 billion yuan (US$30.24 billion) in 2020. (PHOTO / CFP)

Looking to up your looks game? Many Chinese have found it quite convenient to get the job done through aesthetic medicine services delivered by internet platforms.

Aesthetic medicine is a broad term for specialities that focus on altering cosmetic appearance through both surgical and non-surgical treatment.

China's aesthetic medicine industry has been undergoing a transition featuring digitalization and the use of intelligent tools in recent years, and the pandemic-although a blow to the industry-has prompted it to further keep pace with information trends.

Whether seeking thermage treatment or other skin management procedures, Beijinger Chen Li often checks several apps on her smartphone in search of discounts and promotional information.

Such apps include both online aesthetic medicine platforms such as SoYoung and Gengmei, and technology firm like Meituan.

Through such internet platforms, aesthetic medicine institutions and doctors can demonstrate and sell their services, while customers can write reviews, comments and journals about their treatments with before-and-after selfies, use location-based search functions for service providers, connect with doctors for video consultations and make payments.

"All I want to know is out there online, and it is also very convenient and sometimes economical to make an appointment or pay bills through these apps," the 35-year-old said, who works in a State-owned enterprise.

As a regular user of skin treatments since having a laser freckle removal a few years ago, she also often reads articles and watches livestreaming videos on aesthetic medicine topics she is interested in via the apps and lifestyle app Xiaohongshu, or Little Red Book.

Research firm Frost & Sullivan expects China's aesthetic medicine market grew 5.7 percent year-on-year in 2020, the lowest in the past five years, due to the pandemic.

However, the market size of online aesthetic medicine platforms would jump 12.2 percent in 2020 on a yearly basis, it said.

An outlook report on China's aesthetic medicine market, jointly released by Deloitte China and internet company Meituan earlier this year, also said the COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated the process of digitalization in the aesthetic medicine industry, and is expected to reshape the industrial chain.

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A video consultation saves customers' time that would otherwise be wasted on traffic and waiting for a doctor, raising efficiency of the whole industry.

Jin Xing, CEO and founder of SoYoung, an online aesthetic medicine platform

Consumption enthusiasm has rebounded significantly following the gradual resumption of normal activities in the second quarter of 2020, the report said.

According to Gengmei, which means "more beautiful" in Chinese, the number of aesthetic medicine service providers participating in livestreaming activities on the Gengmei platform increased 217 percent each month in 2020, and gross merchandise value one day of livestreaming increased 323 percent compared with the average daily GMV.

SoYoung said information about 11,000 aesthetic medicine practices and more than 20,200 doctors is available on the platform, including many public hospitals.

Its remote video consultation service, launched in early 2020 during the novel coronavirus outbreak, has been used more than 800,000 times, with daily users peaking at 14,463.

"A video consultation saves customers' time that would otherwise be wasted on traffic and waiting for a doctor, raising efficiency of the whole industry," said Jin Xing, CEO and founder of the online aesthetic medicine platform.

Last year, the company also launched a virtual reality-empowered online visit service for customers to get a clear online look at aesthetic medicine practice options when offline visits are not feasible.

The digitalization of the industry is backed by demand from both consumers and aesthetic medicine institutions.

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In this undated photo, a consumer undergoes a dental cosmetic treatment at a global expo in Beijing. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

Traditionally, aesthetic medicine institutions have faced high customer acquisition costs, while customers have found decisionmaking difficult due to the opacity of information. The internet has, to a certain extent, solved these two problems, according to the Deloitte report.

"Aesthetic medicine institutions are becoming more rational in the selection of access-to-market channels and delivery platforms, whilst increasingly adopting high precision and more refined marketing methods to maximize value of the input-output effect," it said.

Historically, medical aesthetic institutions mainly used traditional advertisements and search engines to gain customers, leading to crude matching, increasing costs and falling returns on investment. With high-precision marketing, the ROI of aesthetic medicine customer acquisition platforms is increasing year after year, according to the report.

China's leading aesthetic medicine clinic franchise BeauCare Clinics said SoYoung and Meituan contribute to more than 45 percent of its new patient visits, and despite the impact from the pandemic, the company still met its yearly revenue expectations in 2020 thanks to the rise of minimally invasive procedures and recovered market demand in the second half.

"Digitalization in the industry is getting faster due to the pandemic, but also because unlike medical treatment for an ailing patient who needs offline medical checks, video consultation and online promotions are often enough for aesthetic medicine customers, and the rise of internet platforms offers aesthetic medicine practices more channels for advertisement and promotion, said Li Bin, president of BeauCare Clinics.

However, he said customers using internet platforms are price-sensitive, and sometimes are not rational enough to prioritize quality over price.

According to Luan Jie, director of the Chinese Society of Plastic Surgery under the Chinese Medical Association, the development of online platforms improves transparency of aesthetic medicine information for customers.

"Thanks to the digitalization of the industry, customers are becoming better informed. They have more open channels to trace back the origins of services and medical devices and drugs to be used," Luan said.

Besides, internet platforms help consumers avoid illegal and substandard service providers as they reinforce scrutiny over aesthetic medicine practices' professionalism and compliance with government regulations, he added.

In the past, many practitioners and institutions relied on advertisements and promotions to attract customers, but now professional skills speak louder, he said.

However, as the domestic aesthetic market expands, illegal practices in the sector, such as providing services without certificates, counterfeits and smuggled drugs remain rampant.

China's aesthetic medicine market grew from 64.8 billion yuan (US$10.04 billion) in 2015 to 176.9 billion yuan in 2019, with an impressive 28.7-percent compound annual growth rate, while the global market grew at a CAGR of around 8.2 percent over the same period, according to the Deloitte report.

The domestic market is poised to grow at a 15.2 percent CAGR between 2020 and 2023, versus 7 percent globally, following a period of adjustment.

Market consultancy iResearch said there were 13,000 legal aesthetic medicine institutions in China in 2019, but 15 percent of them provided services beyond their certificates. It is estimated that more than 80,000 beauty salons and lifestyle practices provided aesthetic medicine services illegally.

There were 38,343 legally registered practitioners, yet illegal practitioners amounted to more than 100,000. Among the legal practitioners, about 5,000 provided services illegally in institutions beyond their registrations in 2019.

Moreover, iResearch estimated two-thirds of the injection drugs circulating in the domestic market are either counterfeits or smuggled.

According to the Chinese Association of Plastics and Aesthetics, there are about 20,000 complaints annually on deformations caused by aesthetic medicine treatments in China.

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