Conference Coverage

What are the legal risks of practicing laser cutaneous surgery?



The physician-patient relationship is a key factor in preventing litigation following cutaneous laser surgery, according to Mathew M. Avram, MD, JD.

A gavel and a stethoscope merznatalia/Thinkstock

“Numerous studies indicate that good communication and rapport are the most important means to avoid a lawsuit,” Dr. Avram, director of laser, cosmetics, and dermatologic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, said during a virtual course on laser and aesthetic skin therapy. “It is helpful to say that the outcome was not optimal or what you were anticipating. Communicate your plan [for the complication] clearly and honestly to your patient. The patient may not understand the severity of the complication. If they don’t, they will either leave it alone or they will go elsewhere and may receive poor care.” He added that in New England, “we have some stoic patients who may say ‘I don’t want to bother the doctor’ or ‘It’s my fault for having the procedure done.’ ”

Dr. Mathew M. Avram, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston

Dr. Mathew M. Avram

Establishing effective communication with patients from the outset is good practice, he continued, because 75% of physicians in low-risk specialties will face a malpractice claim by age 65. Nearly a decade ago Dr. Avram, H. Ray Jalian, MD, and Chris Jalian, JD, published results from a national legal database analysis identifying common errors and risk factors for litigation in cutaneous surgery. Their search yielded 1,807 documents with 174 unique legal claims involving injury from a cutaneous laser treatment, from 1985 to 2012. The most common litigated procedures were laser hair removal, rejuvenation (mostly related to intense pulsed-light treatments), and laser treatment of leg veins, while the most common injuries sustained were burns, scars, and pigmentary changes. The most common causes of legal action were lack of informed consent and fraud.

Among the 120 cases with public decisions, cases favored the plaintiff 51% of the time. “That’s unusual,” said Dr. Avram, president of American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. “Usually, physicians do better, but I think the fact that they’re cosmetic cases probably shades things a little bit.” The median monetary award was $350,000 and ranged from $5,000 to $2,145,000. The two largest judgments were for improper use of topical anesthesia that led to deaths of patients in laser hair removal cases.

In a separate analysis, the same authors searched an online national database to identify the incidence of medical professional liability claims resulting from cutaneous laser surgery performed by nonphysician operators (NPOs) from 1999 to 2012. Among the 175 cases identified, 43% involved an NPO. “In fact, the cases involving NPOs exploded over a 4-year period; they grew from 36% in 2008 of cases to 78% in 2011,” Dr. Avram said. “This was even more true for laser hair removal.”

The practice setting turned out to be a factor. Only 23% of NPO litigation involving laser procedures arose in medical office settings, while 77% of cases involving NPOs were performed outside of traditional medical settings such as in salons and medical spas – mostly for laser hair removal. “We updated this information by examining the setting for nonphysician operator litigation between 2012 and 2017 and found that 66% of cases involving NPOs were performed outside of a traditional medical setting, while 34% of NPO litigation arose in medical office settings,” Dr. Avram said during the meeting, which was named What’s the Truth? and sponsored by Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Wellman Center for Photomedicine. “That’s close to a 2 to 1 ratio.”

In an analysis of medical professional liability claims involving Mohs surgery from 1989 to 2011, 26 of the 42 cases identified involved a primary defendant who was not a Mohs surgeon. In the 26 cases, the most common reasons for lawsuits were failure or delay of diagnosis of a skin cancer, cosmetic outcome issues, lack of informed consent, and delay or failure to refer to a Mohs surgeon. Of the cases that involved Mohs surgeons, the most common causes were lack of proper informed consent and cosmetic outcome issues, but “these cases were overwhelmingly decided in favor of the surgeons,” said Dr. Avram, one of the study authors.

On a related note, Dr. Avram underscored the importance of biopsy-site photography, “because patients and physicians misidentify biopsy sites too commonly,” he said. In a single-center study of 34 biopsy sites of cutaneous head and neck malignancies, patients misidentified the biopsy site 4-7 weeks out in 29% of the cases. Blinded dermatologists and the patient misidentified the biopsy site in 12% of the cases. “Good biopsy site photography should be mandatory in your practice,” he advised.

Clinicians can avoid cutaneous laser surgery complications only by not treating patients. “Complications and side effects are inevitable; you need to know your limits,” he said. “Even in skilled hands, if you treat enough patients, you will encounter challenging side effects. Do not perform a procedure that might produce a side effect that you cannot recognize and treat.”

The best way to avoid complications is to trust your eyes – not the laser – since the same device made by the same manufacturer may produce highly different outputs at the same setting (see J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74[5]:807-19).

“Moreover, lasers can produce much different energies after they have been serviced,” Dr. Avram said. “Do not memorize settings. Do not blindly replicate recommended settings from a colleague or a device manufacturer,” he advised. “Some devices are not externally calibrated. Therefore, the settings on one device may not translate the same way to yours. Often, device manufacturers underplay the settings. Safe and unsafe laser endpoints and close observation are the best means to avoiding clinical complications. That means you follow clinical endpoints, not fluences. The key clinical finding is the endpoint, not the energy setting.”

Temporary and expected side effects include erythema, edema, and purpura. “With these it’s just handholding and unlikely to lead to any legal consequences,” he continued. “With temporary hyperpigmentation that can occur with laser hair removal, time is one your side, because typically this will resolve before any litigation progresses. Permanent side effects from lasers and light sources and injectables are a different issue, things like permanent hypopigmentation, depigmentation, and scarring. These are most likely to produce liability.”

In Dr. Avram’s opinion, complications are best handled with widespread communication. “There is a temptation to avoid a patient with a poor outcome or side effect,” he said. “This is bad medicine and rightfully angers your patient and increases the risk of a lawsuit. [Resist] the temptation to avoid showing a poor outcome to a colleague. Many complications can be significantly improved or cleared with timely and appropriate interventions. You should always document your efforts.”

Dr. Avram disclosed that he has received consulting fees from Allergan and Galderma. He is a member of the scientific advisory board for Allergan and Soliton, is an investigator for Endo, and holds stock options in La Jolla NanoMedical Inc.

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