For many individuals searching the internet for solutions to their lower back pain, Laser Spine Institute, or LSI is a familiar name. This is a network of physician-owned spinal surgery centers that rely heavily on Google and other internet search engines to obtain their clients. Their chosen niche is minimally invasive laser surgery, where the physician makes a tiny incision in the patients back and inserts a fiber optic laser and tiny camera to ablate, or burn off nerve endings around an offending spinal disc. Then, they may burn off part of the disc that is compressing nerve tissue. Through their marketing, LSI suggests that patients can be back on their feet within hours of the surgery.

However, the center is attracting a lot of attention in the malpractice arena.  And, respected spinal surgeons not affiliated with LSI say that such a methodology is already available through standard medical care for spinal disc problems and cost much less; although instead of lasers, radiofrequency devices are used.

According to an article in the May 2011 edition of Bloomberg magazine, author David Armstrong reports:

Laser Spine and its competitors, part of a boom in outpatient clinics operated by entrepreneurial physicians, sell a high-tech version of procedures that have been around for years — despite a lack of independent research to show that their variations lead to better outcomes. The company commands higher prices than laser-less rivals, driving up the cost of health care. Its number of malpractice claims per 1,000 surgeries is several times the rate for all U.S. outpatient surgery centers, based on insurance industry data.

…There’s little government oversight regarding which doctors can do spine surgery — all they need is a medical license, whether their training is in orthopedics, foot surgery or pediatrics…

…Doctor-investors may lower their standards for deciding when to operate, according to researchers from the University of Michigan in a study in the journal Health Affairs last year. Looking at five common procedures at Florida surgery centers, they found that once doctors became investors, the number of surgeries they performed increased by 87 percent.

So, if you are considering spinal surgery and run across LSI, make sure to do your due diligence.  Being in acute pain can make one vulnerable to lofty marketing, as there is an urgency to make a fast decision.   Based on this article, it seems that there are three main problems with Laser Spine Institute:

1.  There is a conflict of interest, as some doctors are investors in the parent company.  Thus, there is an incentive for performing unnecessary procedures.

2.  There is little if any respected research that suggests that laser surgery is superior to traditional spinal surgery methods.

3.  The centers use a high volume model and rely heavily on advertising instead of professional referral.  Not a good indicator for quality of service.

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