Say Aaaaaaaah!

Situated in a peaceful spa environment, one fledgling medical practice appears at the forefront of supporting patients’ health and beauty inside and out.

Until only a few years ago, the term “medical spa” was a virtual oxymoron. You sought medical care when you were sick and a spa treatment when you wanted pampering.

Times have changed. Today you can book a medical exam, a massage, a Botox injection, and a manicure — or even laser hair removal with a cut and blow-dry — in a single phone call. The marriage of medical care and spa care has begotten the medical spa — a burgeoning industry driven by take-charge consumers, many of them baby boomers who feel richly entitled to look and feel their very best. It comes as no surprise that one of the nation’s model examples opened in Palm Springs Valley — a world-class spa destination by nature. The Medical and Skin Spa at Agua Serena, located at Hyatt Grand Champions Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, is a full-time physician practice that places as much emphasis on health and wellness as some other “medi-spas” do on beauty and skin care.

The emphasis on wellness is one that Hannelore Leavy, executive director of the Medical Spa Association, applauds. “This is a young industry that’s growing very fast,” she says, estimating there are about 450 medical spas in the United States — a niche that didn’t exist five years ago.

MSA defines a medical spa as a facility with a medical program under the strict supervision of a licensed healthcare professional and whose services integrate traditional and nontraditional medicine and spa treatments.

“I’ve always been interested in holistic, complementary medicine and the mind-body-spirit connection,” says The Medical and Skin Spa at Agua Serena’s medical director, Richard M. Foxx.

Foxx, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, stopped the OB part of his practice 17 years ago to focus on gynecology.  “It gave me the luxury of bringing in other modalities, such as meditation, nutrition and supplements, and acupuncture,” he says of his philosophy of treating the whole person, not only symptoms. “Then about six years ago I became interested in advances in cosmetic skincare and did some fellowships in noninvasive cosmetic treatments. My vision was to develop a medical practice that supports health and beauty inside and out.”

Through a series of fortuitous connections, Foxx conveyed that vision to the owner of Hyatt Grand Champions Resort & Spa, who agreed the medical practice belonged in the 30,000-square-foot Agua Serena Spa that opened last fall as part of the property’s $65 million expansion. The ultra-luxurious digs live up to marketing verbiage describing it as a “floating paradise,” and offer traditional spa treatments, as well as fitness and health classes and retreats.

Clients can order up laser skin resurfacing and hair removal, treatment of leg veins, microdermabrasion, pharmaceutical skin restoration, Botox, and injectable implants. But Foxx likes to emphasize the practice’s longevity, anti-aging, and integrative medicine services, such as cognitive testing, strength and fitness evaluations, gynecologic and menopause management, stress management, lab testing, and nutritional supplement therapy.

“Mainstream Western medicine is a disease-centered model,” Foxx insists. “The doctor treats a disease, and that’s the end of the doctor-patient interaction. Medicine should be a health-centered model where the patient has access to tools to restore health. That’s what we offer here.

“A lot of patients come in looking for Botox,” he continues. “But this isn’t just a cosmetic office. Typically, I spend 60 to 90 minutes with a patient, discussing their general health and lifestyle and what their goals are. Then we can arrive at a treatment plan and follow-up regimen that makes sense for that patient. It’s a partnership.”

A growing number of hospitals and women’s health centers are adopting medical spa philosophies. “It’s more about health and wellness,” says MSA’s Leavy. “As doctors become more aware of the health benefits of spa treatments and preventive medicine, and as medical schools teach more about wellness and nutrition, the spa industry will become integrated with the medical industry.”

Says Pamela Price, co-author with Bernard Burt of 100 Best Spas of the World (Globe Pequot Press), “The driving force in the development of medical spas, in my opinion, is that physicians realized there is a ready market for their services in a non-insurance environment. This has been seen in two specialties: dermatology and plastic surgery. There are also now dental spas.”

Leavy also acknowledges that as baby boomers age, they want the instant gratification that treatments such as Botox, laser resurfacing, and microdermabrasion can provide. Obtaining these noninvasive treatments in a luxury spa versus a clinical atmosphere certainly has its appeal. That was the genesis for Spa Helios at The River in Rancho Mirage.

Arguably the first medical spa in the valley (it opened over a year ago), Spa Helios represents the (already) classic medi-spa model, offering medically directed skincare and cosmetic treatments.

Spa Helios recently entered into an agreement with Advanced Laser Clinics, a national company with 41 freestanding cosmetic laser centers across the country, to provide cosmetic laser therapies, including facial rejuvenation and hair removal. This is the first time ALC has affiliated with a spa. “This is a resort town, so it’s natural to indulge [in spa treatments],” Spa Manager Rich Campbell says. “But we see people year-round who are interested in taking care of their skin. Today’s spa customer is a sophisticated consumer who knows what she or he wants. I think that HMOs have influenced this. We spend so little time with the doctor now that we have to be proactive about our care.”

Health- and beauty-conscious consumers seeking solutions beyond popping a pill or submitting to a nip and tuck might find today’s medical spa a relaxing alternative — where the art and science of medicine appear to be getting reacquainted.

“In Europe, in fact, the term ‘medical spa’ is redundant,” Foxx says. Here in the desert, when it comes to looking and feeling your best, the medical spa may be just what the doctor ordered.

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