Laser eye surgery complications are often under-reported

17 November 2014

Laser eye surgery complications are often under-reported

Complications can include poor night vision and double sight, while a study uncovered Optical Express is the worst for forceful sales tactics.

An estimated 15,000 people a year choose to undergo laser eye surgery in the UK to correct problems such as long or short-sightedness.

The vast majority of operations go smoothly and leave the patient no longer needing glasses or contact lenses – often with 20/20 vision or better.

But a small number of cases have involved serious complications and there is debate in the health sector and political world as to whether greater regulation is needed.

The only current legal requirement is that anyone carrying out laser eye surgery must be a doctor registered with the General Medical Council.

But they are not required to hold any specialist qualification in using the technique.

In up to 5% of cases patients can be left with some long or short sight that will require glasses or top-up treatment.

In extreme cases patients have long-term problems, such as severe dry eyes, or may even lose some of their sight.

According to a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2011 “less serious complications are common and often under-reported as ‘side effects’ or ‘symptoms’”.

Examples of such complications include poor night vision, growths where the eye is cut, double vision, chronic eyelid inflammation and glare or halo effects when driving at night.

Misleading and using pressure tactics

An investigation this year by consumer group Which? found that some high street clinics give unsatisfactory advice about the risks of laser eye surgery.

Of 18 researchers who posed as potential patients, a third received consultations rated as “poor”.

Misleading sales pitches, questionable charges and pressure sales of products that were not necessary were also highlighted as issues of concern.

Optical Express scored "the worst"

Optical Express, which scored the worst, offered nearly £500 off for one researcher to book the treatment the same day.

Labour MP John McDonnell is campaigning for statutory regulation of laser eye treatments – indeed he supported proposed legislation nearly a decade ago but says “not much has changed”.

He wants a register of practising laser eye surgeons, contractual requirements, greater focus on consent requirements to tackle pressurised sales, regulation of advertising claims and new powers of inspection.

The most common procedures in the UK – LASEK and LASIK – both use a laser to correct vision by permanently altering the surface of the eyeball.

It’s easy to understand why such treatments may prove attractive to those who can afford them – prices are usually at least £1,000 per eye and sometimes much more.

The procedure is not painful, both eyes can be corrected at the same time and patients can usually go home quickly and return to work in a week or less.

Woman awarded £570,000 for badly damaged vision

But for a few, such as Stephanie Holloway, the outcome is rather different. She suffered severe damage to her vision, meaning she can only read by candlelight and must wear dark glasses due to extreme light sensitivity.

The judge in her case, initially handled by 5R1 Limited, which now works exclusively with, found Optical Express had not properly warned her of the risks and a ‘sales script’ culture had hurried her decision.

She was awarded nearly £570,000 damages from the high street chain.

The Royal College of Ophthalmologists recommends anyone considering the operation ask for details of their surgeon’s training, qualifications, length of practice and results – and how many patients have had to return for improvement work.

Anyone considering such a major step as laser eye surgery deserves comprehensive information so they can make an informed decision.

As Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said: “Laser surgery could revolutionise your vision, but it does carry risks and clinics should be making these clear upfront.”

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