The California medical board actually has some readable information on its website about medical spa laws and regulations.

Three sites in particular are helpful.
The overview, Medical Spas – What You Need to Know, which is primarily for patients. The California medical board first warns patients, and then includes more information about what to look out for:

Medical spa. It sounds so soothing. It evokes images of candles, beautiful music, warmth and pampering. Spahhhh! The words alone can make one relax.

Medical spas are marketing vehicles for medical procedures. If they are offering medical procedures, they must be owned by physicians. The use of the term “medical spa” is for advertising purposes to make the procedures seem more appealing. In reality, however, it is the practice of medicine.

There is no harm in seeking pampering or in wanting to look better. A visit to a spa may provide a needed respite from our stressful lives, and treatments that make us look better often make us feel better. The Medical Board, however, is concerned when medicine is being marketed like a pedicure, and consumers are led to believe that being injected, lasered, and resurfaced requires no more thought than changing hair color.

Medical treatments should be performed by medical professionals only. There is risk to any procedure, however minor, and consumers should be aware of those risks. While it is illegal for unlicensed personnel to provide these types of treatments, consumers should be aware that some persons and firms are operating illegally. Cosmetologists, while licensed professionals and highly qualified in superficial treatments such as facials and microdermabrasion, may never inject the skin, use lasers, or perform medical-level dermabrasion or skin peels. Those types of treatments must be performed by qualified medical personnel. In California, that means a physician, or a registered nurse or physician assistant under the supervision of a physician.

Patients must know the qualifications of persons to whom they are entrusting their health. Those seeking cosmetic procedures should know that the person performing them is medically qualified and experienced. Specifically, patients should:

Know who will perform the procedure and his or her licensing status: If a physician is performing the treatment, you should ask about his or her qualifications. Is the doctor a specialist in these procedures? Is he or she board certified in an appropriate specialty? Licensing status may be verified at the board’s Web site at, “Check Your Doctor Online.” Board certification status may be verified at

If a registered nurse or physician assistant will be doing the procedure, what are his or her qualifications? Where is the doctor who is supervising them? Are they really being supervised, or are they acting alone with a paper-only supervisor? (Although the physician does not have to be onsite, he or she must be immediately reachable.) Again, you should check the supervising doctor’s credentials, as well as the nurse or physician assistant. Those Web sites are and

Be fully informed of about the risks: All procedures carry risks, and conscientious practitioners will fully disclose them. Medical professionals have an ethical responsibility to be realistic with their patients and tell them what they need to know. Use caution if procedures are being heavily marketed, with high-pressure sales techniques promising unrealistic results.

Observe the facility and its personnel: Medical procedures should be done in a clean environment. While one cannot see germs, one can see if the facility looks clean and personnel wash their hands, use gloves, and use sound hygienic practices.

Ask about complications, and who is available to handle them: If you should have an adverse reaction, you want to know who will be there to help. Who should you call, and what hospital or facility is available where the physician can see you? Qualified physicians have facilities or privileges at a hospital where they can handle emergencies.

Don’t be swayed by advertisements and promises of low prices: There are a host of medical professionals offering competent, safe cosmetic procedures. If they are being offered at extremely low prices, there is a good possibility that what they are advertising is not what will be delivered. Genuine Botox, Collagen, Restalyne, and other injections are expensive. If someone is offering an injection for $50, when the going rate at a physician’s office is $500, then you can be sure it’s not the real McCoy. There have been tragic cases of unscrupulous practitioners injecting industrial silicone and toxic counterfeit drugs that have made patients critically ill, caused disfigurement, or resulted in death.

Know that there is a substantial financial cost to obtaining qualified treatments, as well as some risk. If you want the best results, do your homework and only trust those who demonstrate competence and caution.

This is good in terms of warning about risks of medical procedures that are improperly supervised or inappropriately delegated to non-medical personnel. Aptly, the California medical board notes: “The use of the term “medical spa” is for advertising purposes to make the procedures seem more appealing. In reality, however, it is the practice of medicine.” This makes the medical board’s jurisdiction clear and asserts that even if dressed up as spa, an entity that offers medical procedures will be subject to the medical practice act and its practitioners and owners answerable to a possible charge of unlicensed practice of medicine.

The next site of note is Corporate Practice of Medicine. While this is a complicated area in practice, because the prohibition against corporate practice of medicine has to embodied both in suitable language in the contract and in an appropriate business arrangement, the medical board’s information is useful in business planning. The board observes:

The following is to provide guidance to physicians on the prohibition against the corporate practice of medicine.

Note: This area of law can be complicated, therefore physicians are encouraged to discuss their medical practices and business enterprises with appropriately knowledgeable legal experts. The Medical Board of California continues to receive complaints and inquiries about the law, and some repeating issues are presented here.

The Medical Practice Act, Business and Professions Code section 2052, provides: “Any person who practices or attempts to practice, or who holds himself or herself out as practicing…[medicine] without having at the time of so doing a valid, unrevoked, or unsuspended certificate…is guilty of a public offense.”

Business and Professions Code section 2400, within the Medical Practice Act, provides in pertinent part:

“Corporations and other artificial entities shall have no professional rights, privileges, or powers.”

The policy expressed in Business and Professions Code section 2400 against the corporate practice of medicine is intended to prevent unlicensed persons from interfering with or influencing the physician’s professional judgment. The decisions described below are examples of some of the types of behaviors and subtle controls that the corporate practice doctrine is intended to prevent. From the Medical Board’s perspective, the following healthcare decisions should be made by a physician licensed in the State of California and would constitute the unlicensed practice of medicine if performed by an unlicensed person:

Determining what diagnostic tests are appropriate for a particular condition.

Determining the need for referrals to, or consultation with, another physician/specialist.

Responsibility for the ultimate overall care of the patient, including treatment options available to the patient.

Determining how many patients a physician must see in a given period of time or how many hours a physician must work.

In addition, the following “business” or “management” decisions and activities, resulting in control over the physician’s practice of medicine, should be made by a licensed California physician and not by an unlicensed person or entity:

Ownership is an indicator of control of a patient’s medical records, including determining the contents thereof, and should be retained by a California-licensed physician.

Selection, hiring/firing (as it relates to clinical competency or proficiency) of physicians, allied health staff and medical assistants.

Setting the parameters under which the physician will enter into contractual relationships with third-party payers.

Decisions regarding coding and billing procedures for patient care services.

Approving of the selection of medical equipment and medical supplies for the medical practice.

The types of decisions and activities described above cannot be delegated to an unlicensed person, including (for example) management service organizations. While a physician may consult with unlicensed persons in making the “business” or “management” decisions described above, the physician must retain the ultimate responsibility for, or approval of, those decisions.

The following types of medical practice ownership and operating structures also are prohibited:

Non-physicians operating in a business for which physician ownership and operation are required: any business advertising, offering, and/or providing patient evaluation, diagnosis, care and/or treatment. These are services which can only be offered or provided by physicians.

Physician(s) operating a medical practice as a limited liability company, a limited liability partnership, or a general corporation.
Management Service Organizations arranging for, advertising, or providing medical services rather than only providing administrative staff and services for a physician’s medical practice (non-physician exercising controls over a physician’s medical practice, even where physicians own and operate the business).

A physician acting as “medical director” when the physician does not own the practice. For example, a business offering spa treatments that include medical procedures such as Botox injections, laser hair removal, and medical microdermabrasion, that contracts with or hires a physician as its “medical director.”

In the examples above, non-physicians would be involved in the unlicensed practice of medicine, and the physician may be aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of medicine.

Much of this language is to be expected, but there are a few surprises. For example, the board’s position that a physician has to own the practice if acting as medical director. This is not necessarily the case in every state, and not a necessary conclusion from a strong ‘corporate practice of medicine’ doctrine. Nonetheless, it is the board’s position and one with which medical spas will no doubt wish to comply.

Finally, the board offers guidance on Cosmetic Treatments: Use of Mid-level Practitioners for Laser, Dermabrators, Botox, and Other Treatments. This section is aimed at illegal use of non-medical personnel to provide what are essentially aesthetic medical, and not merely cosmetic, treatments. The medical board notes:

Due to an ongoing influx of calls to the board regarding who may perform what type of medical/cosmetic procedure and where, the following frequently asked questions and responses are provided for informational purposes and as a reminder. This is a reprint and update to an article published in the October 2002 Action Report.

Who may use lasers or intense pulse light devices to remove hair, spider veins and tattoos?

Physicians may use lasers or intense pulse light devices. In addition, physician assistants and registered nurses (not licensed vocational nurses) may perform these treatments under a physician’s supervision. Unlicensed medical assistants, licensed vocational nurses, cosmetologists, electrologists, or estheticians may not legally perform these treatments under any circumstance, nor may registered nurses or physician assistants perform them independently, without supervision.

Who may inject Botox?

Physicians may inject Botox, or they may direct registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses, or physician assistants to perform the injection under their supervision. No unlicensed persons, such as medical assistants, may inject Botox.

I’ve been approached by a nurse to be her “sponsoring physician” for her laser and Botox practice; would that be legal?
No. There is no such thing as a “sponsoring physician.” Nurses may not, under California law, employ or contract with a physician for supervision. A nurse may not have a private practice with no actual supervision. While the laws governing nursing recognize “the existence of overlapping functions between physicians and registered nurses” and permit “additional sharing of functions within organized health care systems that provide for collaboration between physicians and registered nurses” (Business and Professions Code section 2725), nurses only may perform medical functions under “standardized procedures.” The board does not believe this allows a nurse to have a private medical cosmetic practice without any physician supervision.

I’ve been asked by a layperson to serve as “medical director” for a “medi-spa” that provides laser and other cosmetic medical services; would that be legal?

No. No one who cannot legally practice medicine can offer or provide medical services (Business and Professions Code section 2052). A physician contracting with or acting as an employee of a lay-owned business would be aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of medicine (Business and Professions Code section 2264, 2286, and 2400). To offer or provide these services, the business must be a physician-owned medical practice or professional medical corporation with a physician being the majority shareholder.

I see these ads for “Botox Parties” and think that it has to be illegal. Is it?

The law does not restrict where Botox treatments may be performed, as long as they are performed by a physician or by a registered nurse, licensed vocational nurses, or physician assistant under a physician’s supervision.

Who may perform microdermabrasion?

It depends. If it’s a cosmetic treatment, that is to say it only affects the outermost layer of the skin or the stratum corneum, then a licensed cosmetician or esthetician may perform the treatment. If it’s a medical treatment, that is to say it penetrates to deeper levels of the epidermis, then it must be performed by a physician, or by a registered nurse or physician assistant under supervision. Treatments to remove scarring, blemishes, or wrinkles would be considered a medical treatment. Unlicensed personnel, including medical assistants, may not perform any type of microdermabrasion.

I would like to provide non-medical dermabrasion, and hire an esthetician to perform that and also cosmetic facial and skin treatments. What do I need to do?

It is legal for physicians to hire licensed cosmetologists or estheticians to perform cosmetology services, if they have obtained a facility permit from the Bureau of Barbering and Cosmetology. You may apply for a permit with the Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Barbering and Cosmetology, 2420 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95834. You may obtain application forms at the DCA Web site at All licensed cosmetologists, including estheticians, must perform their services in a facility with a permit.

Why can’t I use a medical assistant instead of a nurse?

Medical assistants are not licensed professionals. While doctors have become accustomed to their assistance in medical office practices, they are not required to have any degree, nor do they have to pass an examination or be licensed. For that reason, the law only allows them to perform technical supportive services as described in sections 2069-2071 of the Business and Professions Code, and Title 16, California Code of Regulations, sections 1366-1366.4.

What is the penalty if I get caught using or helping an unlicensed person to perform medical treatment?

The law provides a number of sanctions, ranging from license discipline to criminal prosecution, for aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of medicine. Physicians could be charged with aiding and abetting unlicensed practice, and the employee could be charged with unlicensed practice.

I understand that all of these practices may be illegal, but I see advertisements all the time for these kinds of illegal practices. What should I do?

You may file a complaint with the Medical Board. To do so, please send the advertisement, the publication name and date, and your address and telephone number where you may be reached for further information, to our Central Complaint Unit at 1426 Howe Avenue, Suite 54, Sacramento, CA 95825. The board will contact the business, inform them of the law, and direct them to cease any illegal practice. If it is simply the advertisement that is misleading, they will be directed to change or clarify the ad.

There should be no surprise that the Board finishes this section with a disclaimer: “It is impossible to cover all of the relevant legal issues in a short article, and these questions and answers are not a substitute for professional legal advice. Physicians may want to consult with their attorneys or malpractice carriers about the use of their office personnel. In addition, the board has a number of written materials with more thorough information on this subject. There are legal opinions on the use of lasers and dermabrasion, materials outlining the legal limitations on use of medical assistants, as well as the actual statutes and regulations. To request any of these documents, please contact the Medical Board of California, 1426 Howe Avenue, Suite 92, Sacramento, CA 95825, or call (916) 263-2389.”

Note that none of these three sites discuss the fee-splitting prohibition embedded in California law. For that one has to go to the Business and Professions Code, in particular section 650 which provides: “650. (a) Except as provided in Chapter 2.3 (commencing with Section 1400) of Division 2 of the Health and Safety Code, the offer, delivery, receipt, or acceptance by any person licensed under this division or the Chiropractic Initiative Act of any rebate, refund, commission, preference, patronage dividend, discount, or other
consideration, whether in the form of money or otherwise, as compensation or inducement for referring patients, clients, or
customers to any person, irrespective of any membership, proprietary
interest or coownership in or with any person to whom these patients,
clients, or customers are referred is unlawful.”

This language echoes federal Stark, anti-kickback, and self-referral prohibitions, and the business has to be structured that payments between the physician and the medical spa do not run afoul of these prohibitions.

Also important is the definition of medical practice, which includes:

2051. The physician’s and surgeon’s certificate authorizes the
holder to use drugs or devices in or upon human beings and to sever
or penetrate the tissues of human beings and to use any and all other
methods in the treatment of diseases, injuries, deformities, and
other physical and mental conditions.

2052. (a) Notwithstanding Section 146, any person who practices or
attempts to practice, or who advertises or holds himself or herself
out as practicing, any system or mode of treating the sick or
afflicted in this state, or who diagnoses, treats, operates for, or
prescribes for any ailment, blemish, deformity, disease,
disfigurement, disorder, injury, or other physical or mental
condition of any person, without having at the time of so doing a
valid, unrevoked, or unsuspended certificate as provided in this
chapter or without being authorized to perform the act pursuant to a
certificate obtained in accordance with some other provision of law
is guilty of a public offense, punishable by a fine not exceeding ten
thousand dollars ($10,000), by imprisonment in the state prison, by
imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by both the
fine and either imprisonment.

The one place where the site falls short is that the index link to “Alternative Practices and Treatments” is a bit outdated or incomplete. The section should link to this language:

2053.5. (a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person
who complies with the requirements of Section 2053.6 shall not be in
violation of Section 2051 or 2052 unless that person does any of the

(1) Conducts surgery or any other procedure on another person
that punctures the skin or harmfully invades the body.
(2) Administers or prescribes X-ray radiation to another person.

(3) Prescribes or administers legend drugs or controlled
substances to another person.

(4) Recommends the discontinuance of legend drugs or controlled
substances prescribed by an appropriately licensed practitioner.

(5) Willfully diagnoses and treats a physical or mental condition
of any person under circumstances or conditions that cause or create
a risk of great bodily harm, serious physical or mental illness, or

(6) Sets fractures.

(7) Treats lacerations or abrasions through electrotherapy.

(8) Holds out, states, indicates, advertises, or implies to a
client or prospective client that he or she is a physician, a
surgeon, or a physician and surgeon.

(b) A person who advertises any services that are not unlawful
under Section 2051 or 2052 pursuant to subdivision (a) shall disclose
in the advertisement that he or she is not licensed by the state as
a healing arts practitioner.

2053.6. (a) A person who provides services pursuant to Section
2053.5 that are not unlawful under Section 2051 or 2052 shall, prior
to providing those services, do the following:

(1) Disclose to the client in a written statement using plain language the following information:

(A) That he or she is not a licensed physician.

(B) That the treatment is alternative or complementary to healing
arts services licensed by the state.

(C) That the services to be provided are not licensed by the

(D) The nature of the services to be provided.

(E) The theory of treatment upon which the services are based.
(F) His or her educational, training, experience, and other
qualifications regarding the services to be provided.

(2) Obtain a written acknowledgment from the client stating that
he or she has been provided with the information described in
paragraph (1). The client shall be provided with a copy of the
written acknowledgement, which shall be maintained by the person
providing the service for three years.

(b) The information required by subdivision (a) shall be provided
in a language that the client understands.

(c) Nothing in this section or in Section 2053.5 shall be
construed to do the following:

(1) Affect the scope of practice of licensed physicians and

(2) Limit the right of any person to seek relief for negligence or
any other civil remedy against a person providing services subject
to the requirements of this section.

Note that the final sentence leaves untouched existing malpractice law. The preceding sentence leaves medical practice as it was before.

Now in order to understand how, if at all, the problem of physician discipline is handled different in light of legislative opening to complementary and alternative therapies, one has to go to a different section, which addresses physician discipline. Start with this one:

2234. The Division of Medical Quality shall take action against any licensee who is charged with unprofessional conduct. In addition to other provisions of this article, unprofessional conduct includes, but is not limited to, the following:

(a) Violating or attempting to violate, directly or indirectly,
assisting in or abetting the violation of, or conspiring to violate
any provision of this chapter.

(b) Gross negligence.

(c) Repeated negligent acts. To be repeated, there must be two
or more negligent acts or omissions. An initial negligent act or
omission followed by a separate and distinct departure from the
applicable standard of care shall constitute repeated negligent acts.

(1) An initial negligent diagnosis followed by an act or omission
medically appropriate for that negligent diagnosis of the patient
shall constitute a single negligent act.

(2) When the standard of care requires a change in the diagnosis,
act, or omission that constitutes the negligent act described in
paragraph (1), including, but not limited to, a reevaluation of the
diagnosis or a change in treatment, and the licensee’s conduct
departs from the applicable standard of care, each departure
constitutes a separate and distinct breach of the standard of care.

(d) Incompetence.

(e) The commission of any act involving dishonesty or corruption
which is substantially related to the qualifications, functions, or
duties of a physician and surgeon.

(f) Any action or conduct which would have warranted the denial of
a certificate.

(g) The practice of medicine from this state into another state or
country without meeting the legal requirements of that state or
country for the practice of medicine. Section 2314 shall not apply
to this subdivision. This subdivision shall become operative upon
the implementation of the proposed registration program described in
Section 2052.5.

Now note new language concerning CAM therapies:

2234.1. (a) A physician and surgeon shall not be subject to discipline pursuant to subdivision (b), (c), or (d) of Section 2234
solely on the basis that the treatment or advice he or she rendered
to a patient is alternative or complementary medicine, including the
treatment of persistent Lyme Disease, if that treatment or advice
meets all of the following requirements:

(1) It is provided after informed consent and a good-faith prior
examination of the patient, and medical indication exists for the
treatment or advice, or it is provided for health or well-being.

(2) It is provided after the physician and surgeon has given the
patient information concerning conventional treatment and describing
the education, experience, and credentials of the physician and
surgeon related to the alternative or complementary medicine that he
or she practices.

(3) In the case of alternative or complementary medicine, it does
not cause a delay in, or discourage traditional diagnosis of, a
condition of the patient.

(4) It does not cause death or serious bodily injury to the

(b) For purposes of this section, “alternative or complementary
medicine,” means those health care methods of diagnosis, treatment,
or healing that are not generally used but that provide a reasonable
potential for therapeutic gain in a patient’s medical condition that
is not outweighed by the risk of the health care method.

(c) Since the National Institute of Medicine has reported that it
can take up to 17 years for a new best practice to reach the average
physician and surgeon, it is prudent to give attention to new
developments not only in general medical care but in the actual
treatment of specific diseases, particularly those that are not yet
broadly recognized in California.

Some of this is redolent of the Model Guidelines for Physician Use of Complementary and Alternative Medical Therapies promulgated by the Federation of State Medical Boards. Some echoes the “medical freedom acts” first begun after the Guess case in North Carolina back in 1990.

The reference to the time it takes to disseminate new practices bear some resemblence to, and may have been adapted from, language used in the Institute of Medicine’s report by the Committee on Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by American Public (2005). The statutory language points to what I call “emerging standards of care” (or evolving standards of care), in arguments for courts to exercise greater leniency and openness when evaluating cases involving CAM use by physicians. This language is a hopeful sign for medical doctors seeking to innovate through emerging therapies in integrative medicine clinics, wellness centers, and medical spas.



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The Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen offers corporate legal services, litigation consultation, and expertise in health law with a unique focus on holistic, alternative, complementary, and integrative medical therapies. The law firm represents medical doctors, allied health professionals (from psychologists to nurses and dentists) and other clinicians (from chiropractors to naturopathic physicians, massage therapists, and acupuncturists), entrepreneurs, hospitals, and educational organizations, health care institutions, and individuals and corporations.

Michael H. Cohen is Principal in Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen and also President of The Institute for Integrative and Energy Medicine, a nonprofit organization exploring legal, regulatory, ethical, and health policy issues in the judicious integration of complementary and alternative medical therapies (such as acupuncture and traditional oriental medicine, chiropractic, naturopathic medicine, homeopathy, massage therapy, energy healing, and herbal medicine) and conventional clinical care. Michael H. Cohen is author of books on health care law, regulation, ethics and policy dealing with complementary, alternative and integrative medicine, including Healing at the Borderland of Medicine and Religion, Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Legal Boundaries and Regulatory Perspectives (1998), Beyond Complementary Medicine: Legal and Ethical Perspectives on Health Care and Human Evolution (2000), and Future Medicine: Ethical Dilemmas, Regulatory Challenges, and Therapeutic Pathways to Health Care and Healing in Human Transformation (2003).


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Health care and corporate lawyer Michael H. Cohen has been admitted to the Bar of California, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington D.C. In addition to qualifying as a U.S. attorney, he has been admitted and to the Bar of England and Wales as a Solicitor (non-practicing). For more information regarding the law practice of attorney Michael H. Cohen, see the FAQs for the Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen. Thank you for visiting the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Law Blog.