By Patrick O’Brien, J.D., Legal Coordinator for the American Med Spa Association
The services that medical spas offer can range between traditional spa beauty treatments to cosmetic medical procedures. Just as medical practitioners have developed less invasive procedures to offer in their practices, so too have cosmetologists and estheticians adopted more invasive procedures. As discussed previously (and here), this can create issues when these procedures fall into the practice of medicine without a license or without proper delegation an oversight.
The traditional scope of esthetician practice is usually limited to beautifying procedures and applications that do not invade the living tissue. Typically, living tissue ends up being defined as the stratum corneum, the very top most layer of skin. This is the case in South Dakota, where estheticians are limited to only “non-invasive” procedures that are confined to the non-living cells of the stratum corneum. Similarly, North Dakota forbids estheticians from performing any invasive procedures. This limitation to the stratum corneum allows estheticians to perform many of the services offered in traditional spas, but many of the services a medical spa offers will be outside of their scope of practice. (For individual states, AmSpa Members can refer to your state’s summary here.)
The North Dakota Cosmetology Board mentioned above offers a guidance document you can access here which specifically prohibits their practitioners from performing laser use, CoolSculpting, any sort of injecting, microneedling that invades the live tissue, and chemical peels over a certain strength. These cover many of the most popular procedures that medical spas offer. And since estheticians are the most commonly employed licensee in many medical spas, this can create a temptation to practice beyond their scope. In response to this, many states have passed rules and regulations that provide a legal way for estheticians to extend the scope of their services. This process has taken multiple forms which broadly fall into two categories: 1) expanding their scope or practice or 2) providing rules allowing estheticians to perform medical procedures under physician guidance. However these changes can bring their own risks.
In Minnesota, the legislature passed a law creating an “advanced practice esthetics” license that allows licensees to perform procedures that effect the epidermis. This seems like a minor change, as the epidermis is made of primarily of the stratum corneum. The other two layers of the epidermis are significantly thinner. However, it is enough of a change that many formerly prohibited dermatologic procedures would be permitted within this new scope of practice. In this case, the adopted rules for Minnesota’s advanced practice esthetic license allow practitioners to perform dermaplaning, microdermabrasion, and to use electrical- and light-based skin care treatments. These advanced practice licensees are still prohibited from using lasers, but the other procedures encompass a significant percentage of medical spa offerings. Oregon also has an advanced practice esthetician license that allows license holders to perform “advanced non-ablative esthetic procedures” including, among others, laser-based skin rejuvenation and cellulite reduction. After earning this license the advanced practice esthetician is able to perform services without physician oversight. However, they do need to maintain a collaborative agreement with a medical professional if patients need to be referred. Although both the Oregon and Minnesota advanced licenses prohibit injections, they would still be a versatile licensee to have as part of a medical spa’s team.
Other states have recognized that, although estheticians may have skills that complement more invasive medical procedures, they still need guidance and oversight of a medical licensee. States such as Wisconsin provide detailed rules for estheticians performing services that are medical procedures under physician supervision. A person licensed by the Wisconsin Board of Cosmetology may provide laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, and certain chemical exfoliation procedures; however, this can only take place in a licensed salon and under the delegation, supervision, and written protocols from a licensed physician. Similarly, Kentucky forbids estheticians from performing common medical spa procedures, such as Botox injections, laser treatments and microblading unless under the direct supervision of a physician. Here, direct supervision means within immediate distance to be able to respond to the patient if needed. These states and others like them attempt to strike a balance between expanding esthetician and cosmetologist’s scope of services and providing sufficient medical oversight.
Many states do not have the formalized rules or roles that allow estheticians expand their scope or perform more invasive procedures offered Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Kentucky. In some of these states, physicians may still be able to delegate procedures to other unlicensed individuals known as medical assistants. This may include people who hold esthetician licenses, but usually requires that they not hold themselves out as practicing under their license. Texas is one such state: Estheticians and cosmetologists may only provide their services in a licensed salon. Furthermore, physicians are unable to delegate cosmetology procedures to those licensees. However Texas law and its medical board do allow physicians to delegate certain procedures to others, including medical assistants. Since these procedures are not within an esthetician’s scope of practice, they could only perform them as an unlicensed medical assistant under the supervision of a physician.
Estheticians can be very valuable and versatile employees to a medical spa. They offer a wide variety of services that complement and enhance the other cosmetic medical procedures offered by licensed health care professionals. And in the states that offer expanded scopes of practice or advanced practice licenses, estheticians can even perform some of the more invasive procedures offered. It is, however, critical that medical spas operate well within the rules for delegation and licensees’ scope of practice. Even where the laws and rules are seemingly clear in allowing a procedure to be done by an esthetician, caution should still be exercised. When a physician’s supervision is required, there is always a requirement that the physician confirm that, in their professional judgment, the person has the appropriate training, skills, and experience to perform the procedures. Clearly this is a subjective standard, and the physician’s judgement in regard to what constituted sufficient training and skill would come under close scrutiny by the medical board if there were ever a complaint or adverse patient outcome reported. The physician’s license would depend on the board agreeing with the physician’s prior assessment and, when a patient has been harmed, the board may be less inclined to agree. On the other end of the relationship, if the physician is not providing sufficient oversight or is allowing the esthetician too much free reign, the esthetician could be made vulnerable to discipline from their own board for exceeding their scope of practice or subject to charges of practicing medicine without a license.
It is critical to every medical spa’s success and to the continued success of our industry as a whole that medical procedures are performed by properly trained and licensed people under appropriate supervision well within the rules and regulations of each state. If you would like to learn more about the legal issues surrounding your medical spa you may want to consider attending The Medical Spa Show this coming February in Las Vegas, NV.