When cosmetic surgeon Dr. Alexander Rivkin schedules his appointments for the week, social media is high on his to-do list. He aims to spend at least 10 minutes a day on it, and it often spills into his weekends. But he’s not posting selfies to Instagram. He’s logging on to the cosmetic surgery social media site RealSelf and answering patients’ questions. “This drives business,” he says, explaining that the website sends the majority of new patients through the doors of his Westside Aesthetics practice in Los Angeles. His online presence makes him approachable and allows potential patients to evaluate his aesthetic. His take: The modern practitioner can’t afford not to be online.
These days, surgery-specific social media is big business. The websites might not be as well-known as the Facebooks of the world, but Seattle-based RealSelf, which launched in 2006, made about $20 million in 2015. And that kind of revenue is now attracting venture capitalists to the space. In 2016, Tencent Holdings Ltd. invested $50 million in SoYoungTechnology, a Beijing-based cosmetic surgery social media site. Another Chinese site, GengMei, went through its Series C round the same year, receiving a multimillion-dollar investment from Sequoia Capital China.
We [bring] radical transparency to the market and empower people to make well-informed decisions.
Tom Seery, CEO, RealSelf
The social networks all offer similar services — Yelp-like reviews of surgeons, operation diaries, before-and-after photos and Q&As with doctors. These networks are now considered so vital to a surgical business that medical conferences run sessions to help doctors raise their online profiles. According to the website of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, “Surgeons who ignore these sites today will fall behind their competitors in years to come.”
They’re not wrong. RealSelf CEO and founder Tom Seery tells OZY via email that “86 percent [of RealSelf consumers] say they would not choose a doctor without a review.” The RealSelf website receives nearly 10 million visitors per month, and the company has expanded, adding 95 new employees last year to bring their total to more than 160 staffers. “We [bring] radical transparency to the market and empower people to make well-informed decisions,” Seery says. Eyeing the growth of cosmetic surgery social media abroad, Seery is looking to expand into non-English-speaking markets.
Good move — cosmetic surgery is experiencing a global boom, with an estimated 20 million procedures per year, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Japan ranks third in the world, after the U.S. and Brazil, for most procedures — that’s total operations, not per capita — and Asia is becoming a hot spot.
Browsing Mdl.com, a Guangzhou-based network, I view ads for liposuction and breast enhancements that are styled like lipstick commercials. “Fat big diversion! Turning waste into treasure,” reads one. Even allowing for translation issues, it’s still a weird message, and the site design looks like Teen Vogue meets Nip/Tuck — you can click through to purchase your surgery and make a reservation. The site has received $12 million in funding from investors like IDG Capital Partners, an early backer of App Annie, Razer and MoveLoot.
In 2014, China reportedly spent $61 billion on cosmetic surgery, a sum that an HSBC report predicts will double by 2019. “The growth [of surgery] stems not only from increasing wealth but also from social media,” HSBC analyst Yumeng Wang wrote. On the app GengMei, which translates as “becoming prettier,” I scan the patient diary section. One entry, titled “Angelaruru’s more beautiful diary,” shows a before-and-after photo of a woman, age 18 to 25, with her face slimmed, nose sculpted and cheeks reshaped with fat pads. One year post surgery, she’s still uploading pictures, and each update receives a slew of comments. In 2014, the average value of an app transaction was around $1,600, GengMei founder, Liu Di, told the government-authorized news site China.org.
In an examination room back at Westside Aesthetics, a baby-faced 21-year-old I’ll call Johnny lets me feel his chin. He had some filler placed there a few months ago, which he feels gives his face more definition — good for boosting his confidence during presentations at the University of Southern California, where he’s a biology major. “I wasn’t nervous,” he says. “After all, I grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by cosmetic surgery, and I know guys and girls with their lips done.” Johnny wouldn’t dream of going to a doctor without first checking out the physician online; the mere concept is startling to him. Rivkin has 25,000 followers on Instagram, 2,326 on Facebook and 7,000 profile views on RealSelf, but emphasizes that RealSelf is the most valuable. “Instagram is informational, people look at it, but that’s not what brings them in,” he says.
However, some experts are questioning the way surgeons use social media. In Australia, Westmead Private Hospital banned surgeons from Snapchatting, citing privacy issues and concerns that social media might compromise patient safety. Many doctors consider it unethical. “I think social media sites can be good, but they’re not all-inclusive,” says New York cosmetic surgeon Dr. Elliot W. Jacobs, a diplomate of the American Board of Plastic Surgery. Jacobs’ Park Avenue practice gets a number of inquiries this way, but he cautions prospective patients to be careful. “The internet has a lot of everything, including misinformation, and you have to be intelligent enough to read reviews with an open mind.”
To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” And their online reviews.