Doctors Warn About Laser Therapy for Ugly Veins

Today there seems to be a laser machine for just about everything, from wrinkle removal to fat burning to vision correction and even hair removal!  But vein experts warn that many doctors in South Florida are performing procedures to zap away unsightly veins from the back of your legs with laser therapy. This treatment is very profitable and is being performed too often on patients that do not need it.

Although this laser ablation has not been proven dangerous, it is risky if done strictly for cosmetic reasons, because it vaporizes the vein most often used in heart bypass surgery, doctors said. In addition, the laser procedure rarely eliminates the ugly veins the patient was trying to get rid of in the first place.

“This procedure is such a good money-maker that a lot of doctors have gotten into it. They are doing them on lots of people who don’t need them,” said Dr. Arthur Palamara, a Hollywood vein surgeon.

There are about 40 million Americans with varicose veins, who are potential customers. Florida’s large senior population and aging baby-boomers can mean big business for many doctors looking to make a quick profit from laser vein therapy.  Insurance often covers this, making it even easier for doctors to sell this to patients.

Overuse of the procedure is a problem nationwide, but more extensive in Florida, as noted by vein surgeon Dr. Gloviczki, from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and incoming president of the National Society for Vascular Surgery.

These laser procedures are being performed by heart specialists, family doctors, psychiatrists, and gynecologists. Once the doctor purchases the laser machine, he can make profits of $2,000 for each 30-minute procedure.

Dr. Almeida, a Miami vein surgeon, and instructor at University of Miami Medical School, describes this as “turning into the wild, wild west.”

Palamara and Almeida said that they see several patients weekly who had healthy veins zapped needlessly by another doctor. Some of these patients merely had spider veins, which can be treated safely and easily with simple saline injections, or varicose veins, which caused no trouble to the patients and are normally treated with support stockings.

“This is probably the most abused procedure in the U.S. at the moment,” said Dr. Russell H. Samson, an associate professor of vein surgery at Florida State University Medical School. He says, “In my opinion…in some of these cases, it’s physical abuse of the patient.”

More than 350,000 laser vein procedures were done last year, up 35 percent from 2009. The reason is because “you have all these other specialists hopping on the boat,” said Millenium Research analyst April Lee from Toronto.

The therapy is considered “medically necessary” when varicose veins cause pain, weakness, bulging, swelling, and in extreme cases, wounds on the skin. Insurers such as Medicare, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, Aetna, and Cigna cover laser therapy only when medically necessary. But vein experts say that many doctors have found ways to interpret test results to classify non-medical cases as medical issues to justify the procedure.

One good reason a vein procedure should only be performed by a vascular surgeon is that they had prior training and they possess knowledge about veins. As Dr. Samson said, “you have cardiovascular surgeons who spent their careers using saphenous veins for bypass, now removing healthy ones to make money. This is a vein you might need someday. It shouldn’t just be wasted.”

Last year the national vascular group issued stricter standards as to when laser therapy should be performed and covered by insurance, with the hopes of reducing the needless treatments, Dr. Gloviczki said.

As suggested by Dr. Gloviczki, look for vein clinics that are accredited by the Intersocietal Accreditation Commission, which follows the vascular group’s standards.

But in most cases, average people trust physicians to do the right thing. It is a shame that there are unethical physicians who care more about their pocketbooks than the safety of innocent patients, just wanting to get rid of their embarrassing, ugly veins. These doctors should stick to their specialties and not be so greedy!

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