Laser surgery can be a useful tool in the hands of a skilled operator. In some cases, however, patients have experienced severe and permanent harm as the result of negligent doctors as well as operators who are not licensed as physicians. Laser surgery is often used to remove hair, rejuvenate skin, and treat vascular lesions. Plastic surgeons and dermatologists are the physicians who most commonly employ laser surgery, but a recent study found that nonphysicians, including nurses and aestheticians, are the laser operators in almost 40% of the procedures that result in lawsuits. Experts are particularly concerned about nonmedical facilities (including inaptly named “medical spas”) that offer laser hair removal without having a licensed physician on site. Fortunately, California offers more protection than some states. A “medical spa” cannot legally operate in California unless it is owned and operated by physicians. Cosmetologists and unlicensed medical assistants may not perform laser surgery in California. However, physician assistants and registered nurses may perform these treatments under a physician's supervision. Unfortunately, when laser surgery goes wrong, patients suffer. A personal injury law firm that represents injury victims in medical malpractice claims can help suffering patients recover the compensation they deserve.
Hair removalUsing lasers to remove unwanted body hair is a common and popular procedure. According to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, nearly half a million hair removals are performed by dermatologists each year. More than a third of all laser injuries that are sufficiently serious to result in a malpractice claim involve hair removal. The performance of those procedures is too often relegated to staff members who have limited training and who do not know how to recognize or treat emergencies as they arise. A physician’s “supervision” of laser surgery often consists of nothing more than the physician’s presence somewhere in the building. Training is usually provided by manufacturers that sell laser equipment rather than licensed physicians. The New York Times reports that the negligent performance of laser surgery to remove hair “can cause disfiguring injuries and severe burns in sensitive areas, like the bikini line and the mustache area above the lips.” One study of laser hair removal found that typical complications include scarring and pigmentary changes. Other complications include reticulate erythema (an inflammation and reddening of the skin in a net-like pattern) and eye damage when lasers are used to remove eyebrows or other hair near the patient’s eye.
Skin rejuvenation and tattoo removalLasers are used to rejuvenate skin and to remove tattoos. “Rejuvenation” usually refers to the reduction of wrinkles, blemishes, and acne scars. A process called “laser resurfacing” uses concentrated, pulsing beams of laser light to remove irregular skin layer by layer. A similar process is used to remove tattoos. The short bursts are meant to reduce the overheating of skin that results from prolonged exposure to laser light. Laser surgery can produce desirable cosmetic effects when used properly. When procedures are not conducted with care, however, they can result in serious harm. The most common injuries caused by the application of a laser to skin are:
- Burn injuries (including second- and third-degree burns).
- Destruction of tissues beneath the skin.
- Changes of pigment (discoloration).
- Complications (including death) arising from the excessive application of topical anesthesia.
- Eye injuries (when lasers are used improperly while removing wrinkling near the patient’s eyes).