Laser Back Surgery Clinics Reap Profits, Complaints

May 4, 2011

Anything involving lasers seems modern and sophisticated, almost by definition. And surgery with lasers? That's got to be better, right?

Maybe you've seen the ads for clinics offering laser spine surgery in airline magazines or on the Web. No hospital stays, quick recoveries and minimal incisions are part of the pitch.

Well, Bloomberg News' David Armstrong reports that the booming business at for-profit outpatient laser surgery clinics comes at a high price for insurers and some patients. And the rate of serious complaints is higher than those for other outpatient procedures.

Armstrong takes a close look at Laser Spine Institute, a high-flying company whose profit margin is higher than Google's.

The most common procedure at the company's clinics involves two steps: 1) a laser burns away sensitive nerve endings between vertebrae; 2) damaged discs or bony growths that push on the nerves are removed.

The surgery to relieve back pain hasn't been shown superior to laser-less versions and runs about $30,000, more than twice the amount insurer Aetna will pay for the old-fashioned approaches.

For what it's worth, Aetna won't cover care given at Laser Spine, the article says. One neurosurgeon who has treated former Laser Spine patients said, "It strikes me as somewhat of a scam."

The company defends its prices and work, saying in-house surveys show 87 percent of patients have had positive results. Also, only 1 in 10 people who seek consultations about surgery actually get the procedure.

Surgery of any kind may not be the best approach to relieving common back pain. A 2010 study found that complex back surgery, which carries a significant risk of complications, is overused. Here's a Q&A from a while back that goes over some of the options for managing an aching back. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit