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Face Risks: An I-Team 8 Special Investigation

By Karen Hensel
News 8 @ 11:0
WISH TV 8 Indianapolis

Part 1: Laser Treatments

Dropping in for a manicure and getting a laser treatment is the newest trend in spas, but you also face risks. Laser treatments are touted for doing a lot, like giving you smooth skin or ridding unwanted hair."Pigment variation, the number one reason that brings women into my office," said Dr. Greg Chernoff, a plastic surgeon."We call those age spots," Karen said. "Yes," laughs Dr. Chernoff.Medical spas, called plastic surgery light, are an $11 billion a year industry.

And I-Team 8 finds almost anyone can get certified to operate the laser for laser treatments. Some spa technicians have as little as one hour of training. "He does the main removal because we're not really that good, you know what I mean?  We haven't practiced that at all," said a spa employee.

Misuse of a laser can leave the person scarred."This is very common as well as we see patients go into a medi spa and treated for unwanted hair or spider veins. Being treated with too high energies with the wrong system, you wind up with an ulcer that leads to a scar and over time they will have permanent pitted scars on their legs," Dr. Chernoff said.

Damage can be permanent, changing the pigment or texture of the skin. Dr. Chernoff is a certified plastic surgeon with offices in Indiana and California. He owns dozens of lasers. He teaches laser technology and consulted the FDA on laser safety. He is disturbed by current trends."We've seen a large outburst across the country of hair salons, spas. They approach a physician to become a nebulous term, their 'medical director,'" Dr. Chernoff said.In the U.S., lasers are sold only to doctors and licensed practitioners. But there is no law requiring the doctor to operate it. At some spas, patients are assured a doctor is on staff, but in reality the doctor has little to no involvement. 
I-Team 8 asks, "So sometimes you never see the doctor who is the "medical director" and that may be a dentist, an ob/gyn, and as long as they have a doctor they can get the machine?"  "Correct. And that is when we start to see problems," Dr. Chernoff responded.

Patients found it difficult to talk on the record about being burned or scarred by a bad laser experience. But one Indianapolis woman told I-Team 8 the spa technician, while performing the laser treatment, actually told her she "goes home at night and studies her manual on operating the laser machine."Keep in mind, a laser is creating heat in the tissue. If it blisters and is not treated properly, it scars.I-Team 8 called several spas in central Indiana.

Several told us estheticians, not doctors, operate the lasers. One told us, "The doctor is never really there, he doesn't take part in the services, he only owns the facility." Yet another told us the estheticians receive just a "one week" training."There really isn't a month that goes by we aren't referred a patient from another facility," Dr. Chernoff said.Patient injuries are growing, most caused from someone like an esthetician operating the laser with little to no training.
"Only when you see complaints arise will we see actions occur with that," Dr. Chernoff said.Is anyone watching? I-Team 8 called state agencies including the Health Professionals Bureau, State Department of Health, State Information Center and the State Attorney General's Office. One official told us, "Unfortunately there has to be three to four bad situations before someone says we need to regulate."

Part 2: Runaway Nurses

"Runaway nurses" are the latest trend at the spa that could be dangerous and what they are doing could leave patients scarred for life."This person was treated at an outside facility with a machine now obsolete," Dr. Greg Chernoff said. The woman went to a "medi-spa" where they provide medical treatment."You can see the spot where it was going over attempting to trace the blood vessel," said Dr. Chernoff.

No longer about just manicures and pedicures, spas use lasers to rejuvenate sun damaged skin, remove hair or spider veins. Almost half the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery say they have seen an increase in patients who got substandard care from non-physicians. Laser treatments topped the list of botched procedures and there is a rush of doctors buying laser machines.  "Many of these doctors are being bitten by managed care so they look for alternative methods to increase their income," Dr. Chernoff explained.As doctors, they can buy the laser machines, then put their name up as the medical director of the salon or spa. But there are no Indiana regulations as to who can operate the laser."We're starting to see this more and more within Indiana," Dr. Chernoff said.

I-Team 8 took a hidden camera into two central Indiana spas

.Spa #1 employee: "Our nurses do the consultation, he's just our medical director and he is just here to make sure we have a doctor on premises."

I-Team 8 at Spa #1: "Will he be in the room when it happens?"  Spa #1 employee: "No."

I-Team 8 at spa #2: "Will he be there when I get it done?" Spa #2 employee: "We can have him come in and check the settings I'm using, but they don't really have to." But it gets worse with a new phenomenon in another state, called "runaway nurses"."I had two nurses in one of my California facilities taking my laser for hair modification out on a Friday, going to hair salons on the weekend and bringing it back prior to business on Monday," said Dr. Chernoff.

The nurses embezzled $200,000 worth of business before being caught, but that wasn't the worst of it." There were some patients who had some untoward effects," Dr. Chernoff said. Those effects can be eye damage, burns and permanent scarring.

Research this year finds 61 percent say their laser procedure was performed by only a technician.No one in Indiana watches salons or medi-spas and no one regulates the operation of the lasers."I've just shown you half a dozen patients where it takes eight to ten different systems to use which is why you can't expect to go into a medi-spa with one system and be promised the world," Dr. Chernoff said.

The number of cosmetic procedures has increased four-fold in the last 10 years. If you are going for laser surgery there are three main questions to ask. First, is the doctor certified in cosmetic work? Next, how many laser treatments have they done? And third, what is their complication rate?

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