How to tell the difference between aesthetic doctors, dermatologists and plastic surgeons


Can an aesthetic doctor carry out a breast enlargement operation? What about plastic surgeons, what do they do? What’s the role of dermatologists in all of this?

As far as I can remember, there’re always a couple of standard questions that I get asked when meeting a new acquaintance at a party.

One of which is how old I am.

Upon hearing that I’m 38, the person will usually go “Really? I thought you just graduated from college,” to which I will grin from ear to ear with pride.

I will then explain that I’ve had a few (well, quite a few is more like it) aesthetic procedures done upon myself as I’m an aesthetic doctor. As you can imagine, aesthetic practitioners are expected to walk the talk, and ahem, look flawless all the time.

Most folks will then go “Ooohhh.... You’re a plastic surgeon! What do you recommend I do for my face/tummy/boobs? Do you think this artist and that minister’s wife had a facelift?”

Plastic surgeons are doctors who specialise in reconstructive surgery. They first have to train as general surgeons before they can subspecialise as a plastic surgeon. Photo: AFP

I find that most Malaysians are confused between the roles and areas of speciality of aesthetic doctors, dermatologists and plastic surgeons. Let’s end this confusion once and for all.

Aesthetic doctors, or sometimes called aesthetic physicians by the public, are general practitioner medical doctors who have a special interest in aesthetic medicine. They attend certificate, diploma, or even masters courses, to study and train in this field.

Aesthetic doctors offer non-invasive and minimally-invasive procedures such as botulinum toxin injection, dermal fillers, chemical peels, various lasers and weight-loss programmes.

Attending courses alone is insufficient to make the aesthetic doctor a good one. A doctor has to pick up the hands-on injection or laser skills by getting lots of practice.

By doing the procedure over and over again, and by attending workshops and training sessions, their skills and experience improve over time.

I remember when I first started doing aesthetics a number of years ago; I would catch my friends, aunties, and even my condo’s Indonesian cleaner makcik, and get them to be my practice subjects.

Of course, my first few volunteers were sometimes not too pleased with the results, but lucky for me, they are close acquaintances who were willing to forgive and forget over a cup of teh tarik.

They understood that there is a learning curve for new doctors and that I would improve over time.

Besides offering aesthetic procedures, some aesthetic doctors combine their practice with general practice (GP).

They still attend to the regular outpatient patients who have acute and chronic conditions such as cough and colds, hypertension and diabetes mellitus.

There are also aesthetic doctors who prefer to focus just on aesthetic procedures alone and do not offer GP services. This is because some aesthetic clients prefer to have a degree of exclusivity and privacy.

Madam Sofia, who’s here for her session of laser hair removal, would probably feel a tad uncomfortable sitting in the waiting room with Ah Chong and Muniandy who are coughing and sneezing away.

A good number of aesthetic doctors also offer skin disease consultation and treatment, as skin conditions tend to go hand in hand with aesthetic procedures.

For example, besides the usual antibiotics and anti-acne creams, clients with pimples can also be offered salicylic acid chemical peels or Light Emitting Diode (LED) phototherapy simultaneously for better results.

After the active zits are cleared, the aesthetic doctor may offer pigmentation or scar reduction treatment to help improve the patient’s looks.

On the other hand, dermatologists are doctors who specialise in the field of treating skin diseases. After graduating medical school, they further pursue courses in dermatology.

Many dermatologists nowadays also offer aesthetic procedures such as dermal fillers and the various lasers, as there is a high market demand for these feel-good procedures.

Modern folks nowadays want to look young, fresh and rejuvenated, so they will look for professionals who can help them turn back the hands of time.

Plastic surgeon are doctors who specialise in reconstructive surgery. They first have to train as general surgeons before they can subspecialise as a plastic surgeon.

Plastic surgeons perform surgery that changes the appearance of a patient’s body.

Not only do they do cosmetic operations such as nose jobs, breast enhancements, liposuction or face lifts, they also perform reconstructive operations for those who have birth defects such as cleft palate or injuries from accidents or burns.

To regulate the booming aesthetic industry, the Health Ministry has come up with a regulatory body for aesthetic doctors, dermatologists and plastic surgeons.

A panel comprising the three groups of doctors will decide on the aesthetic procedures that each individual doctor is allowed to practice by awarding them with a Letter of Credentialing and Privileging (LCP).

This is done by conducting interviews and written exams to ensure that only qualified and experienced doctors perform the relevant procedures.

For example, as I am not a plastic surgeon and do not have the relevant qualifications and training, I am not allowed to do liposuctions or breast enhancements.

I hope that clarifies the difference between the three kinds of doctors.

So I pray that you don’t mistake me for a plastic surgeon the next time I tell you that I’m an aesthetic doctor.

Dr Chen Tai Ho is an experienced aesthetic doctor who chills by the pool sipping espresso latte when he’s not attending to his patients. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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