South Korea's dangerous ghost doctors are putting plastic surgery patients' lives at risk
Updated 12:59 AM ET, Thu April 15, 2021
Seoul, South Korea (CNN)One Friday night, Kwon Tae-hoon received a call.
"Are you the brother of Mr. Kwon Dae-hee?" the caller asked. "Your brother is in the ER. Could you come to (the hospital) now?"
His brother's condition "wasn't that serious," the hospital said. Kwon assumed his brother had gotten into a fight after drinking, and, as he took a taxi to the Seoul hospital, he prepared to scold him for getting into trouble.
But he never got the chance. When Kwon arrived, the 24-year-old was unconscious. After having a surgery to make his jawline more slender, his brother had bled so much that the bandage around his face had turned red.
Kwon never made it. He died in hospital seven weeks later.
Kwon's family say he was the victim of a "ghost doctor," the name given to someone who performs a surgery another surgeon was hired for when the patient is under general anesthetic.
The practice is illegal in South Korea, but activists say weak regulations in the country's booming $10.7 billion-dollar plastic surgery industry have allowed factory-like clinics, where unqualified staff substitute for surgeons, to thrive. Doctors sometimes simultaneously conduct multiple operations -- meaning they rely on substitutes who may be freshly qualified plastic surgeons, dentists, nurses, or, in some cases, medical equipment sales people -- to undertake some of the work for them.
Under South Korean law, someone who orders or performs an unlicensed medical act is subject to a maximum punishment of five years in prison or a maximum fine of 50 million won ($44,000). If a ghost surgery is performed by a licensed doctor, that could lead to charges of causing harm or fraud. But these crimes are hard to prove -- many substitute doctors don't note down the work they've done and many clinics don't have CCTV cameras. And even once the cases get to court, ghost doctors rarely get heavy penalties, which emboldens clinics to continue with the practice, lawyers say.
But Kwon's high-profile case has brought renewed attention to shadowy operators. His family aren't only bringing criminal charges against the doctors involved -- they're demanding legal changes, too.
Kwon was a warm and humble university student, the kind of son who cooked seaweed soup for his mother's birthday, his family remembers. He was a high-achiever but was insecure about his looks and believed plastic surgery could make him more successful, his brother said.
In photos taken shortly before his death, Kwon had digitally altered his face to have the sort of pointy, V-like jaw seen on many K-pop idols.
Kwon's elder brother and mother, Lee Na Geum, tried to talk him out of getting plastic surgery, but Kwon secretly booked into a well-known clinic that specialized in jawline surgeries in the glitzy Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam, an area traditionally home to the country's biggest K-pop labels.
On September 8, 2016, a doctor removed bone to change the shape of Kwon's jawline, a popular surgery in East Asia that usually takes one to two hours. It cost 6.5 million won ($5,766), according to his mother.
But Kwon's operation did not go as planned.
After bleeding excessively, he was moved to hospital. At 9 a.m. the next morning, the plastic surgeon who had operated on Kwon arrived at the hospital. He told Kwon's family that the procedure had gone as normal and even offered CCTV footage of the operating room to prove it -- something that isn't required nationwide, but which some clinics do to increase trust. "I immediately felt that I needed that evidence," said Kwon's mother, Lee.
Lee watched the CCTV footage from the operating room 500 times, she says. The footage showed the surgery started at 12:56 p.m. when the plastic surgeon began to cut Kwon's jaw bone. Three nursing assistants were also in the room.
After an hour, the plastic surgeon left, and another doctor entered the operating room. The two entered and left the room, but for almost 30 minutes, there was no doctor in the operating room at all, although nursing assistants were present.
Lee saw that although the surgeon Kwon hired cut his jaw bones, he did not complete the surgery. Much of rest of the operation was done by the other doctor -- a general doctor who did not have a plastic surgery license and who had recently graduated from medical school, despite an advertisement for the clinic explicitly saying that the head doctor of the clinic would operate from start to finish.
"My brother trusted in that main doctor, and that's why he decided to be operated on there," Kwon Tae-hoon said.
The surgery finally finished at 4:17 p.m., more than three hours after it started, according to the footage. Jaw surgery usually takes an hour-and-a-half or less for an experienced doctor, according to Kim Seon-woong, the former law director of the Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons, who has run a plastic surgery clinic for 25 years.
After the surgery, both Kwon's doctors went home, leaving nurses in charge as he lost blood. Lee said she was shocked by the footage; as her son bled, assistants corrected their makeup or looked at their cellphones. In total, they mopped the bloody floor 13 times. When medical professionals evaluated the footage, they found he had likely lost three times as much blood as what the doctors had said.
"I don't think this ghost doctor checked how much blood my son shed," she added. "I was so angry at that fact. Had just one of the three doctors checked how much he bled," she said, referring to the plastic surgeon, the ghost doctor and the anesthetist, "but no one did."
Despite Kwon's death, the clinic stayed open and continued to advertize that it had gone 14 years without a patient experiencing any accident. The clinic closed last year. It is unclear why.
A lack of laws
Kwon's family wanted to hold those responsible to account. But they soon found the laws around ghost doctors were weak and incomplete.
South Korea's Supreme Court approved plastic surgery for aesthetic purposes as a medical practice in 1974, and the following year surgeons were required to pass professional exams. By 2014, officials were aware of the practice of ghost surgeries. In 2015, a group of plastic surgeons asked the Ministry of Health and Welfare to tighten rules by requiring doctors to say who operated on a procedure, and installing CCTV cameras in the clinics.