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The skin guru

Practically everyone goes to Kathleen Welsh, and it’s easy to see why. From cancer detection to laser treatment, the Harvard-trained dermatologist remains at the forefront of her field—and utterly respected by San Francisco society. Welsh invited the Gazette to her busy practice, and shed insight on hot new treatments.

By Michelle Konstantinovsky 

If Kathleen Welsh had ignored her intuition and followed the crowd, San Francisco’s most radiant faces might look a lot less luminous.

“I became interested in dermatology in medical school, but was kind of discouraged from doing it,” she says. “At that time, internal medicine doctors looked at it as an easy way out, like you weren’t doing the hard part of medicine.” So Welsh tried the conventional path, completing her internal medicine residency at UC San Francisco. Then conventional no longer cut it. “I got bored and went to Stanford for dermatology.”

The Northern California native developed a passion for the discipline while growing up in Humboldt County. “I had a friend in high school with horrible acne scarring,” Welsh recalls. “She went from this outgoing young woman to really losing a lot of self-esteem and it took years to get that back. I saw from a young age how much appearance can affect people emotionally and what a kind physician who cares can do to help.”

Welsh set out to fill that role, but the journey wasn’t easy. As one of five sisters, she worked to pay her way through UC Berkeley to earn a chemistry degree, and Harvard, where she completed medical school. The effort proved worthy when Welsh eventually pursued her dream and saw the power her profession had to change lives. “Some people think cosmetic dermatology is just that—cosmetic and somehow frilly,” she says. “But I really believe—and studies show—that people do judge others based on looks and that helping to improve someone’s appearance can improve their life, professionally and socially.”

Welsh’s colleagues quickly noted her uncommon dedication. “Our history goes back to our years as residents at Stanford,” says fellow dermatologist Vic Mazurka. “I have great memories of her integrity and excellence, which has really blossomed throughout her career. It’s rare to be in the same town and be true colleagues, but if you have somebody like that, you can only get better in what you do.”

After Stanford, Welsh worked at an Oakland private practice before landing a life-altering gig. “I was offered a job at Kaiser and after less than six months, I was promoted to the head of that department,” she says. “I learned a lot there and it gave me the confidence to open my own practice.”

Bay Area Cosmetic Dermatology was born in 2000. “I remember saying to my husband, ‘I just want to keep this small. Maybe have one to two employees and a few patients who really love me.’” Fast-forward 17 years, and Welsh has a staff of 40 that’s treated 34,541 clients (16,538 of whom are active patients seen in the last five years). The doctor and mom of two (her son is a Berkeley grad and drummer in the band Sweet Plot; her daughter is a junior at Barnard and an improv comic) says timing played a big part in her success.  “Around that time, Botox was FDA-approved and hyaluronic acid fillers and lasers were really starting,” she says. “I was 40 years old and there was all this new technology. If I had been older, I probably would’ve said ‘I’m too old to learn this,’ and if I were younger, I may not have had the financial security to start a business. I believe there’s a lot of luck in being successful—being in the right place at the right time does matter.”

Timing was everything when dermatologist Andrea Hui joined the practice as well. Referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s book on intuition, Hui says making the decision to partner with Welsh three years ago was one of three “Blink moments” in her life. (The other two: choosing her profession and choosing her fiancé.) “As soon as I stepped into the office, I knew it was the right place for me,” she recalls. “I pretty much said yes on the spot.”

Today, the duo remain committed to a shared philosophy of total-patient care that Hui feels gives them an advantage over other facilities. “We take care of the patient from head to toe,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been treating someone with Botox or fillers and I’ve seen a spot on their face and then we biopsy and it’s skin cancer.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say Welsh and her team save lives. After friend and fellow dermatologist Ellen Murmurs established the charity Skin Cancer, Take a Hike!, Welsh, an outdoor enthusiast, raised money for her own climbs of Mount Diablo and Patagonia, which helped support the American Academy of Dermatology’s education, prevention and screening efforts. “My husband and I raised $65,000 this year and we raised $250,000 as a group,” she says. “The neatest thing is that we talked so much about it in the office that we actually diagnosed four early-stage melanomas in patients who usually just come in to get Botox or fillers, and 10 other basal cancers. It just raised awareness in my group of patients and got them thinking: I’m seeing a dermatologist, maybe I should have this mole looked at.”

Even when appointments are solely appearance-focused, clients commend Welsh’s skills. “I’ve been with Kathleen for more than 20 years, and she’s an amazing doctor,” says Joanne Horning, noting that Welsh also helped her 30-year-old daughter when she developed cystic acne. “Now her skin is just flawless,” Horning says. “She lives in LA and comes up here especially to see Dr. Welsh, and when she lived in New York, she always made sure to see her when she came home. We only trust her.”

Alexandra Elvitsky, 63, who initially came to Welsh for eczema treatment, says, “She gave me hope when there was none. She looked at me and told me I don’t have to live like this; there is a solution. I am now eczema-free and have been for years.”

Beyond Welsh’s skill and knowledge, patients trust their skin to Welsh for another reason: she’s her own best guinea pig. “I’ve personally had most of the services in the office,” she says. “I’m attentive to minimizing pain and downtime. My patients trust me to recommend treatments because they know that I want them to look natural and beautiful. Less is more for most women in Northern California, where we embrace health and vitality.” To achieve that NorCal glow without veering into Real Housewives territory, Welsh mixes and matches everything from facials and fillers to lasers and peels for customized care. “We offer a huge variety of services because we want there to be a treatment that fits everyone,” Welsh says. “It’s not one size fits all.”

While clients have a seemingly endless array of options in Welsh’s office, the doctor’s been impressed by one specific type of technology. “I really think laser treatment continues to be the most exciting thing,” she says. “We used to have to say, ‘There’s nothing we can do for that, you just have to live with that blemish or birthmark,’ but now we have lasers that can treat so many things so simply.” One surprising area where Welsh sees lasers playing a particularly important role in the future: “Vaginal rejuvenation is a hot topic right now for many women who’ve had children and have mild incontinence or have laxity and decreased sensation. There are several devices that many gynecologists are starting to use but these are technologies we’ve used for years.”

While it’s taken decades of hard work to get to the top, Welsh isn’t quite ready to call it quits. “My patients are always asking when I’ll retire,” she says. “Working allows me to be generous at a level I never would have thought possible as a small girl growing up in Northern California. Helping others and helping people feel good about themselves is such a privilege.” 

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