April 23, 2006]
Highland Beach woman files lawsuit over laser hair removal procedure
(South Florida Sun-Sentinel (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 23–Laser hair removal has become one of the fastest-growing non-surgical cosmetic procedures in recent years – second only to Botox – with more than 1.3 million performed in 2005. But some health advocates say the industry has grown so fast that regulations have not kept pace and consumers should be cautious.
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Touted as a way to eliminate the need for shaving or waxing to remove unwanted hair, the procedure involves passing low-level laser energy over the skin where it is absorbed in the pigment of active hair follicles, disabling them.
In South Florida and across the country, numerous consumer complaints have been filed, and injuries have been reported in rare cases. The Florida Department of Health has received 226 complaints involving laser hair removal since 1996, said Thometta Cozart, a spokeswoman for the agency.
State officials are reviewing a complaint by Selen Adak, 24, of Highland Beach, that she has permanent scarring on her leg as a result of burns suffered during treatment at American Laser Centers in Boca Raton.
In the complaint and a separate lawsuit, Adak said the treatments were a gift from her parents upon graduation from Florida Atlantic University, and included six prepaid laser treatments for her legs, underarms and bikini line.
On Adak’s final treatment, the laser applied to her left leg caused 300 first- and second-degree burns, which left her with scars over the entire leg, according to Boca Raton plastic surgeon Steven Schuster, who treated her for the burns.
“It was a horrible situation. You’ve got to feel for this young woman,” Schuster said. “You always hear anecdotal stories, but she was the first case that I’ve seen that was so severe. This was a very sad case, and I think it was technician error more than anything else.” Schuster said he has received a subpoena from the state asking for Adak’s medical records.
Kevin Piecuch, executive vice president of American Laser Centers of Farmington Hills, Mich., which owns the Boca Raton center and others in 25 states, said he couldn’t discuss Adak’s case, but said the company’s operations are safe.
“We have physician’s assistants who do the work in Florida,” he said. “Every state has its own set of rules and regulations, and even in states where we’re not required to have licensed medical people, we do a certification. All the people who operate the laser are certified through an intense training program that we oversee.”
Adak said in an interview that she was unaware during the procedure that she was being burned.
When she got off the treatment table, she knew something was wrong.
“There was a really, really dark brown checkerboard pattern, and a crusting. I asked [the technician] for ice, and asked her to call the doctor, and she said no one was there,” Adak said. When she got home, her father drove her to the emergency room.
Adak’s case is not unique. A Pennsylvania woman who had the same procedures developed second-degree burns and was hospitalized in 2001, and a North Carolina college student died last year from a bad reaction to an anesthetizing cream she applied to her skin before her first hair removal session, according to published reports. A fatality was also reported in Virginia, but details of that case were sealed as part of a court settlement.
Some states, such as California and Connecticut, allow only licensed physicians to use lasers for hair removal.
The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses clinics and hospitals, does not license laser hair removal centers, nor does it track any problems that might develop, said Toby Philpot, a spokesman for the agency.
The Florida Board of Medicine says the commercial application of a laser on human tissue is the practice of medicine. That means only a physician or a physician’s assistant should be using such equipment, said Christopher Nuland, a Jacksonville attorney who represents the Florida Society of Plastic Surgeons and the Florida Society of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery.
But an exception has been made for licensed electrologists, who began adding laser hair removal to their practices in the late 1990s, Nuland said.
“The argument was that the field of electrolysis would become extinct if they weren’t allowed to do [laser hair removal],” Nuland said.
Judy Adams, the legislative liaison for the Electrolysis Society of Florida, said electrologists are the only group that is well regulated by the state to do the procedure. Electrologists must take 360 hours of training and an additional 30-hour course in the use of lasers, said Adams, an electrologist who practices in St. Augustine.
“But nobody is requiring physician assistants or nurses or physicians to do that,” she said. “There’s a huge gap in training.”
Nurses are not permitted to use lasers for hair removal unless they become licensed electrologists and take the necessary laser training, said Anthony Jusevitch, an administrator with the Florida Board of Nursing.
Doctors as diverse as ophthalmologists and obstetrician-gynecologists have gotten into the business of removing hair with lasers, but the state does not spell out what training they must have.
According to the Florida Department of Health, most of the 226 complaints involving laser hair removal filed in the last decade were against physicians, said Cozart, the agency spokeswoman. Forty-seven involved electrology, she said.
A study by Dr. Kathleen Gilmore, national medical director for American Laser Centers, found problems occur rarely – fewer that one-tenth of 1 percent of all cases. The findings were presented this month at a meeting of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery.
Piecuch, the American Laser executive, said the centers have done more than 650,000 treatments.
“It’s a relatively new industry and most states have not spoken very carefully about what is required. We have decided as a company that we take the safest and most rigorous view,” he said. “We want to be sure we don’t run afoul of Florida law.”