Laser treatments fall in legal grey area

Maureen Hicks had a cosmetic laser treatment and suffered eye damage about two years ago. September 2013. (KOIN 6 News)
Maureen Hicks had a cosmetic laser treatment and suffered eye damage about two years ago. September 2013. (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Maureen Hicks wanted to do something nice for herself, so about two years ago she had a cosmetic laser treatment at a local medi-spa tanning salon.

“I wanted to be without wrinkles,” she told KOIN 6 News. “I wanted to feel beautiful inside and out.”

Instead, she said, the laser technician didn’t know what she was doing and removed Hicks’ eye protection during the treatment. She said there was no actual medical staff at the medi-spa to help.

“It hurt so bad I couldn’t move my head,” she said. “The swelling had so much pressure it changed the actual eyeball and changed my vision.”

Doctors claim they see laser injuries almost routinely and a KOIN 6 News investigation found there have been 17 laser-related complaints to the Oregon Health Licensing Agency in the last two years related to injuries like burns and swelling.

As a state consumer protection agency, the OHLA licenses cosmetology facilities and estheticians, but a spokesman said they don’t closely follow the use of lasers.

“Unless we have a complaint or one of our inspectors sees a laser and asks somebody, ‘What are you using that for?’ then we don’t know,” said Kraig Bohot, OHLAs Communications Coordinator. “It’s a problem.”

State officials said lasers fall into a vast grey area of state regulation making it unclear how estheticians can use them.

Maureen Hicks had a cosmetic laser treatment and suffered eye damage about two years ago. September 2013. (KOIN 6 News)

Maureen Hicks had a cosmetic laser treatment and suffered eye damage about two years ago. September 2013. (KOIN 6 News)

“We can’t just individually interpret the law as we see it. That would be great,” esthetician Monique Raab told KOIN 6 News. She is assistant director of the Aesthetics Institute. “However that’s how we’re already in the circumstances we’re in now.”

Oregon law states an esthetician can offer skin care for “the purpose of keeping the skin healthy and attractive and not for medical diagnosis or treatment.”

The law specifically allows for laser hair reduction.

Beyond that, though, Bohot said it’s a challenge to determine whether an esthetician is working on a medical condition because there are “fine lines specifically with skin care.”

This week, the OHLA will convene its first laser work group made up of other state agencies, including the Oregon Medical Board which oversees physicians.

The board’s statement of philosophy on the “medical use of lasers” hasn’t been updated since 2002 — and that is merely guidance, not law.

That guidance says lasers for medical procedures should only be used under the direct supervision of a physician on site.

But the law also states estheticians can not use “devices which may damage the skin.”

Scores of medi-spas, with or without medical care service options, and hair and tanning salons offer similar laser services to the one Maureen Hicks received.

The OHLA said estheticians are not required to have physician oversight, just laser training — and there is no set number of hours for training.

That worries Hicks, who hopes state agencies will make changes before more people get hurt.

“I trusted they knew what they were doing,” she said.

The debate likely will come down to clarifying legal definitions for beauty and medicine. It may take new laws so doctors and spas are clear on who can do what with a laser.

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The Laser Workgroup will meet Tuesday, Sept. 24, at the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board, Conference Room 445, 800 NE Oregon Street in Portland. The meeting begins at 1 p.m. and includes the Oregon Board of Cosmetology, Oregon Medical Board, Oregon Board of Nursing, Oregon Board of Dentistry, Oregon Board of Pharmacy, Oregon Health Authority – Radiation Protection Services, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Agency.

The public is invited.

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