A higher degree of skin care

Posted by on January 5, 2021 in Articles

A higher degree of skin care

Canada’s first ActivMD Derm Spa™ advances the art – and science ­– of skin wellness.

By Vivienne O’Keeffe, CIBTAC, AAD, PEA

In my three+ decades as a spa consultant I’ve dealt with all kinds of businesses, from sprawling hotel-based super chains to tiny wellness facilities. So when Dr. Jaggi Rao and his wife Dr. Namita Rao called me to see how I could help them turn empty office space next to their flourishing dermatology practice into a profitable medical aesthetics facility, I was intrigued.

I was also aware of the issues involved. Dermatology and aesthetics are two different animals – the former frequently funded by public health care, the latter almost never. Clients expecting to be able to simply flash their medicare card after a $1500 laser treatment would be in for a rude awakening.

What’s more, I’ve seen what sometimes happens when medical doctors run a private business. Med school textbooks don’t cover balance sheets and P&L statements, and the results too often reflect this.

But my concerns were allayed almost immediately after meeting the two doctors at their proposed new facility – 1740 sq. ft of clean, bright space right next to Rao Dermatology in central Edmonton near the University of Alberta, where Dr. Jaggi Rao attended med school, trained as a dermatologist, and still teaches.

The space had been sitting vacant since they’d purchased it in 2018, waiting for a guiding hand to bring it to fruition. That guiding hand would be mine, and I have to say it was a pleasure from the get-go. Drs. Jaggi and Namita and staff were clearly committed to building a new and exceptional kind of customer experience, from signature treatments to the most advanced skincare technologies available. Witnessing Dr. Rao in action at his existing clinic, I had no trouble at all envisioning a serene and successful aesthetics facility next door functioning smoothly and happily under his and his associates’ meticulous supervision.

Still, it would take a carefully crafted concept to make it happen.


A different kind of med spa

Two key ingredients were already present: the vast body of technical knowledge evident in the Rao Dermatology team, and their fervent desire to make their new genre of med spa – what we decided to call a derm spa – succeed.

The target opening for ActivMD Derm Spa™ was the summer of 2020. What is fundamental in my work and also embraced by the two Raos is the importance of The Customer Journey. The new Derm Spa strategy would prove no exception, and would need to take into account what a client should see, feel and experience when walking into in an advanced skin treatment facility. Based on the Derm Spa skin wellness concept, our professional associates at Box Interior Design suggested a colour scheme from floor to ceiling based on the wide range of human skin tones. Professional lighting and simple yet elegant furniture, accented by soft music, were similarly designed to heighten the customer experience, increase client retention and generate word-of-mouth referrals. All aesthetics equipment would be top-notch European-made, and a spacious reception area would feature a wide range of products including the Raos’ ēcōMD™ brand of “Clean Conscious Skincare” cosmeceuticals.

Considerations for the new derm spa would also include:

  • Emphasis on skin wellness
  • Safety (evidence of best practices with regard to infection control)
  • Trust
  • Quality

Finally, the new spa would clearly need to embody the philosophy of Dr. Jaggi, whose credentials include double-board (Canada and USA) dermatology certification, cosmetic surgery, and full Clinical Professorship of Medicine at the U of A, while tapping other skills and knowledge he’s acquired in the fields of physiology, surgery, psychology, physics and technology.


Treatments combine medical and aesthetic

Merging the disciplines of classic medical dermatology with the most sought-after aesthetic interventions allowed the team to settle on the following slate of treatments:

  • Power Tech Facials incorporating laser technology with classic facials
  • Laser services including ablative, non-ablative and light therapy
  • Anti-aging
  • Scar reduction
  • Laser hair removal
  • Tattoo removal
  • Micro needling, PRP and other skin boosters to promote radiant skin
  • Neuromodulators and filler treatments, for natural-looking enhancement


A hit from day one

By the time the last coat of paint was applied and the treatment tables were in place, ActivMD Derm Spa™ looked every bit as beautiful as we had all envisioned. Of course, there’s no guarantee that any businesses will succeed until customers start walking in the door. Fortunately, they did.

“Our clients have been extremely supportive and appreciative,” reports Spa Director Sandie Carr. “Some have even brought us gifts and treats as a congratulations on our new space. We have been very lucky to have had long-time relationships with many of our clients referred to us from our dermatology practice. And the Derm Spa concept has actually given us tangible credibility with our new clients, who have been referring their friends.

“A constant refrain from our new clients is that they love the atmosphere and feel nurtured and valued from the moment they walk in the door. We even get compliments on our choice of jazz music! Customer service has been a huge focus for us, but having an affiliation to the Dermatology clinic for extra credibility has also been helpful.”


How to open in a year of COVID?

“The greatest challenge has been making sure that staff and clients follow all required protocols every day,” says Carr. “This has meant getting used to wearing updated PPE, changing PPE after each client, and remembering to fill out fit-for-work forms daily. We also had to consider appointment spacing, sanitizing everything that could possibly be touched, and finding alternative ways to promote products that in the past could be easily sampled.”

Training sessions with vendors have had to adhere to provincial guidelines. And the July Grand Opening had to be pared down to a minimum capacity while still allowing as many VIPS as possible to attend – compounded by the possibility of a very rapid closure if the pandemic reached another phase of mandatory restrictions.

“We really had to think outside the box on that one,” says Carr. “But it has also made us much more adaptable in our work environment, and has probably made us a much more cohesive group as we depend on each other more to make sure we’re doing all we can professionally and emotionally to get through this very difficult time.”


Shedding light on laser training

Shamefully enough, it’s not uncommon in our industry to see spas purchasing six-figure laser equipment for which they receive maybe a weekend’s training – with predictably dire results including permanent damage and lawsuits. To prevent this and to teach proper use of these powerful machines, Dr. Rao has opened a laser training facility and assembled a team of instructors to work alongside him in classrooms and in ActivMD Derm Spa™.

His Aesthetic Laser Training and Aesthetic Medicine (AMT™) Academy offers the most extensive hands-on instruction available in North America, he says, and includes classroom education and a mandatory two-week clinical rotation to enable students to learn from technicians in dermatology offices while also being exposed to a variety of cosmetic and medical concerns treatable by laser.

And on a final note, it should come as no surprise to learn that the energetic Drs. Jaggi and Namita have plans to expand their Derm Spa operation into other Canadian cities by licensing the concept to other dermatologists, via a turnkey process and team that can expand the Derm Spa vision and teach medical professionals the art – and science – of skin wellness.

You can contact them at www.activmdspa.com.


Published as “A higher degree of skin care” in Spa Canada January/Februrary 2021

Vivienne O’Keeffe, CIBTAC, AAD, PEA, is President of Spa Profits Consulting Inc., and an expert in designing successful spa concepts. She is also an international consultant in developing product lines, treatment plans and training programs, a member of ISPA and a recipient of the Spa Industry Association of Canada Outstanding Industry Service Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012. 


  1. Bonjour Vivienne,
    Always of high interest to read your publication. I wish you well in the new year!

    • Thank you and best wishes to you too, Alain. May we all have a great year!

  2. Great article Vivienne! I’d be interested in knowing what lasers are used for in dermatology!

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