By Alex R. Thiersch, JD, CEO of the American Med Spa Association (AmSpa)
The medical aesthetic industry continues to boom, and core doctors—plastic surgeons, facial plastic surgeons, oculoplastic surgeons, and cosmetic dermatologists—would seem to be set to profit in this space. As physicians, they are allowed to own medical spas, and they can ideally not only profit from the medical spas themselves, but also use them to direct business to their surgical practices. After all, medical spas tend to offer non-invasive procedures that are similar to some things core doctors do, and it does stand to reason that if patients go to a medical spa looking for a Botox injection, they might eventually want a nose job or a face-lift. That being the case, the core doctor who owns the medical spa should be uniquely positioned to offer his or her services.
However, that’s not necessarily the case. I chat with core doctors all the time, and those who open medical spas intending to use them primarily as feeders for their practices tend to view them as poor investments. Their medical spas tend to fail, and the amount of business they drive to their surgical practices is insignificant.
In truth, medical spas that are designed primarily to act as feeders for surgical practices are set up to fail, and most core doctors tend to be very bad medical spa owners. They typically don’t understand the medical spa business, how much work it takes, the profit margins, the necessary volume, and numerous other factors vital to maintaining a successful medical spa. But that doesn’t mean that a medical spa can’t still be a successful business for a core doctor or help to generate surgical business—it simply means that a core doctor needs to understand the realities of the medical spa industry before he or she decides to dive headlong into it.
A Singular Paradigm
The business model core doctors typically understand is very different from the one under which medical spas operate. Surgical practices offer big-ticket procedures, such as breast augmentations and face-lifts; they do not need to deal with a large volume of patients, and they do not need to market themselves like a retail outlet—by the nature of their business, they tend to generate sufficient revenue to get by.
While medical spas must follow the same rules and regulations to which more traditional medical facilities adhere, they are unique in that their services are entirely elective and entirely cash-based. People who use medical spas do so because they want to, and treatments at medical spas are much less expensive than those available from core doctors’ surgical practices. Therefore, for a medical spa to succeed, it must have a lot of patients, its employees must master the art of selling, and it must entice patients to return. In other words, it must operate like a retail center rather than a medical office.
For this reason, medical spas need to be run with a totally different mind-set than core doctors are typically used to. Medical spas owned by core doctors who do not adapt to a more retail-oriented emphasis often end up failing. When I tell core doctors that I have medical spa clients who generate up to $6 million annually, many of them cannot wrap their minds around how that is possible.
A New Perspective
In order for a medical spa to create business for a surgical practice, it must first succeed on its own terms. To facilitate that, core doctors typically need to let others run their medical spas. Core doctors need to understand that the medical spa business is much, much different than the ones they are used to, and they need to partner with people who are experienced with marketing and sales in a retail environment.
A core doctor’s time is better spent performing highly profitable surgical procedures, which medical spas cannot do. If a core doctor can get an experienced businessperson to operate the med spa, they will have a much better chance to succeed. Giving up this control can be difficult for core doctors, since a lifetime of academic and financial success tends to make them think they can achieve anything. However, most doctors don’t go to business school—they don’t know retail and they don’t understand sales. These qualities—rather than medical knowledge or surgical skill—tend to lead to medical spa success.
In addition, medical spa team members must be provided the tools and processes to sell. A medical spa receptionist, for example, should not be someone being paid $12 an hour with no experience; he or she should be one of the highest-paid people on an administrative staff, because he or she needs to be able to sell.
A medical spa also should provide talk tracks for nurses and aestheticians so they understand that their jobs are about selling themselves and the doctor. Employees at medical spas also need to understand that selling retail products is extremely important to maintaining a healthy business. These characteristics of successful medical spas may seem distasteful to doctors, who are used to professional environments that are less aggressive, but this is the reality of the medical spa industry, and every day more and more physicians discover this to be true.
The businesspeople who enter the medical spa industry are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful. A core doctor might believe he or she doesn’t need the help, but chances are the opposite is true.
There are several resources in the AmSpa store to help you build your business and train your team to put your medical spa practice in an excellent position to succeed.
The Practice of Medicine
A medical aesthetic practice must be focused on sales, but it also is required to follow the medical rules and regulations of the state in which it is located. These laws can vary significantly depending on the state, so a med spa operator should consult an attorney familiar with the industry when setting up the practice and procedures. AmSpa members can check their state’s medical aesthetic legal summary to learn about the rules and regulations governing their practice.
Most states observe a doctrine known as the corporate practice of medicine, which decrees that a medical practice must be owned by a physician or a physician-owned corporation. As previously established, medical spas are retail outlets, but they also are unquestionably medical practices, so medical spas must be entirely owned by a doctor or his or her corporation in states where the corporate practice of medicine is observed.
This can present problems for a core doctor who wishes to partner with a businessperson to run a medical spa, because the businessperson likely is going to want some equity in the practice. However, giving any ownership stake to a non-physician is illegal if the state where the medical spa is located observes the corporate practice of medicine.
Opportunities for Ownership
There are solutions, however. If a core doctor wishes to partner with an entrepreneur to open a medical spa in a corporate-practice-of-medicine state, he or she can set up a management services organization (MSO). An MSO provides practice management services, while the doctor, for whom a separate company is created, exclusively provides medical services.
This arrangement, known as a management service agreement (MSA), allows the non-physician who owns and/or operates the MSO to supervise almost every aspect of a medical aesthetic business, including branding, marketing, owning the real estate, payroll, human resources, accounting and billing—everything except the administration of medical services.
This is akin to a lessor/lessee situation. Generally, the MSO owns and maintains the facility, while the doctor inhabits the space. The doctor pays the MSO for the right to occupy the space, and the MSO acts as a landlord, maintaining the facility and keeping the doctor as comfortable as possible.
However, unlike a rental agreement that is managed by a lease that dictates the occupant pay a set amount of money for a certain term, the amount paid to the MSO fluctuates according to the amount of money the physician is paid by patients. If the medical organization treats more patients in a term than it did the previous term, the MSO will also make more money. This represents a sort of equity—in function, if not form. Read more about MSOs here.
The corporate practice of medicine also dictates the ways medical spa employees can be incentivized. In retail, salespeople are often offered commission—a percentage of the sales they make that meet certain conditions set by their employers. However, under the corporate practice of medicine, all payments for medical services must be made in full to a physician or physician-owned corporation. In these states, if a medical spa owner pays employees commission, he or she is engaging in fee-splitting, which is illegal.
This is somewhat common at medical spas. The people who own and operate these establishments generally only wish to reward the people who bring business to the practice, but if a medical spa is found to have engaged in fee-splitting in a state where it is illegal, the doctor who owns the practice could face the suspension or revocation of his or her license, as well as a significant fine. Additionally, the provider who receives the commission payment is subject to a fine. A performance-based bonus structure should be offered instead of commission. Read more about med spa compensation here.
Medical spa owners and operators who need to learn about the ownership requirements in their states should contact an experienced health care attorney to find out what is legal in their state.
Becoming a medical director for an existing medical spa, rather than opening a new practice, is another option for a core doctor. Several core doctors I have represented are doing this very successfully. They don’t need to deal with actual day-to-day operation of a retail store—they can simply lend their name to a medical spa, perform some consultations, oversee the practice’s other medical professionals, and then head back to their own practice rather than worrying about the intricacies of the business. This offers a core doctor a look at the industry without requiring him or her to make an enormous ownership commitment. It’s important, however, to understand the risks and responsibilities of med spa medical directors before committing to this course of action.
A Path to Success
The core doctors who oversee a compliant, well-run medical spa stand to gain a great deal from the arrangement. A successful medical aesthetic practice can earn a lot of money by itself, and if a med spa has a lot of patients, it makes sense that the number of referrals to an affiliated surgical practice will be higher than if it is struggling.
If a core doctor wants to enter the medical aesthetic industry, he or she cannot do it halfway. A medical spa that is created to function primarily as a compliment to a surgical practice is unlikely to find a great deal of success; one that is designed to succeed on its own terms, however, offers numerous benefits to its owners, including the possibility of increased surgical business.
Attend an AmSpa Medical Spa & Aesthetic Boot Camp to learn the legal and business best-practices you can employ to build and run a successful medical spa practice.