NEWS- Vanity fare: Planet Fun becomes Planet young

Dr. Bonnie Straka's Signature Medical Spa will soon fill the former Planet Fun space on Berkmar Drive.

Charlottesville may never be like Beverly Hills, where plastic surgery is virtually a rite of passage, but the West Coast isn't the only place where vanity reigns– it's alive and well right here in Charlottesville. 

For proof, look no further than Signature Medical Spa, the cosmetic side of dermatologist Bonnie Straka's practice. Straka opened the spa in 2005, dedicating approximately half of her 3,000-square-foot office on Proffitt Road to cosmetic procedures. She figured that would be more than enough to meet her patients' demands for procedures like Botox, which paralyzes the underlying muscles that create wrinkles, and Restylane, an injectable wrinkle filler. 

It wasn't.

"We had more and more patients coming in and asking for that type of treatment," says Straka, who says the number of wrinkle-busting treatments available and the reasonable price tag– compared to full scale plastic surgery– has driven the numbers up. She soon realized she was facing a career choice.

"I either had to stick to medical and surgical dermatology," she says, "or I had to be able to offer the comprehensive range of services."

Now the owner of seven lasers who has a staff of 22, including three other dermatologists, Straka is preparing to take the next step: doubling the physical size of the practice by moving both her medical and spa operations to Berkmar Drive at the site of the now defunct Planet Fun.

In early 2008, about half of the 7,000-square-foot building that once buzzed with giddy children and arcade games will be dedicated to cosmetic treatments. Besides Botox, these will include laser skin resurfacing and the brand new lipodissolve– an injection that causes fat cells near the injection site to swell, die, then get broken down and expelled.

Straka admits that procedure sounds too good to be true, but insists that Lipodissolve, like every other treatment she offers, has been scientifically tested through peer reviewed research and notes that members of her own staff test each procedure before any patient receives it.

"We've gotten phenomenal results," she says. Lipodissolve is not appropriate for all-over weight loss, says Straka, just for stubborn pockets of fat that won't respond to diet and exercise. Straka says she refuses its use on the significantly overweight, suggesting instead a nutrition and exercise consultation. 

While many of the procedures are performed by nurses or aestheticians, Straka says she is on site to consult and often handles more complicated cases. That medical supervision, Straka believes, is one reason medical spas– which don't focus on the traditional relaxing spa treatments like massages and facials– have become a trend across the country. And even if other local dermatologists haven't opened dedicated medical spas, many are aboard the cosmetic wagon.

Anna Magee, of Charlottesville Dermatology, says approximately half of her practice at Peter Jefferson Place on Pantops involves cosmetic procedures. She too offers laser treatments for wrinkles, brown spots, even acne– and  hosts regular Botox and Restylane days, at which patients get discounts and are treated to cookies and juice in the office waiting room.

"I enjoy the cosmetic side of it," she says. 

She may also enjoy the paycheck, since insurance– which caps the fees doctors can collect for most procedures– doesn't cover non-medically essential treatments. A round of Botox (several injections over one area) typically starts at $350, while laser treatments can be as much as $1,000 each. 

Still, some local docs say they aren't interested in milking the cosmetic cash cow.

 "What I love is dealing with medical dermatology, skin cancer, true pathology on adults and children," says Brett Krasner, a dermatologist who moved here from Michigan two years ago and opened his practice off 29 North. "It's not as lucrative," he admits, "but that's not why I went into medicine."

Krasner says he happily refers patients who want cosmetic procedures to other dermatologists like Straka and Magee. "They're artists in addition to being doctors," he says. "They gravitate to that because that's what they love to do."