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Discount Laser Centers: Bargain Eye Surgery Comes With Tradeoffs

WebMD Health News

Jan. 28, 2000 (Minneapolis) -- If you're like other near-sighted people, the ads from so-called 'discount laser centers' may have appealed to your pocketbook. But before you decide to have laser surgery to improve your vision -- and before you consider going to a discount center -- you need to consider several factors.

Discount laser centers have benefited patients by forcing the cost of laser procedures down in all practices, Richard L. Lindstrom, MD, tells WebMD. "With this competition, we have all had to become more efficient," he says. "Because of the quality assurance programs put in place by these corporate-owned discount laser centers, the outcomes ... in these centers are probably similar to those of surgeons in private practice. The doctors at the centers are technically very good." Lindstrom is the managing partner of Minnesota Eye Consultants in Minneapolis and is also a clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of Minnesota.

LASIK is an anagram for laser in situ keratomileusis, the refractive surgery most commonly performed for near-sightedness. The term "refractive surgery" refers to the variety of surgeries that can be used to correct vision, including LASIK. This particular technique corrects vision by thinning a portion of the cornea.

Patients are highly interested in discount laser centers, says Lindstrom. "People are willing to travel great distances -- often to Canada and Mexico -- to get the surgery done at a reduced cost," Lindstrom tells WebMD. Typically, these centers offer a package deal of approximately $3,000 for both eyes, compared with the cost of $2,200 per eye that is typical in a private practice.

"The only thing that's missing is a meaningful doctor-patient relationship," he adds. In a practice that follows a classical model of medicine, the patient will decide which surgeon is doing the procedure. That physician will meet the patient ahead of time to talk about the surgery and what can be expected. If there are complications, the operating physician will manage them. Just "doing the surgery and never seeing the patient again" does not appeal to many physicians, says Lindstrom. Because classical medical care involves more of the physician's time, it is more costly than care in a discount center.

When surgery is performed in a discount center, the patient typically meets first with the center's nurse practitioners and laser technicians, who explain the surgery and what can be expected. The patient doesn't usually meet the surgeon until the day of the procedure.

When consulting with a discount center, patients should ask who will be doing their surgery. As in any setting, the patient should know where the physician was trained, how many surgeries he or she has performed, and how complications are handled, Lindstrom advises. As a courtesy, patients should tell their hometown ophthalmologists about plans to travel for eye care before -- rather than after -- the procedure. This way, patients will avoid offending their hometown physicians, and the ophthalmologists themselves are prepared to mange any postoperative problems that occur, he tells WebMD.

When totaling the cost of a discount center procedure, patients need to include postoperative care and travel expenses. This total should then be compared with that of a procedure performed in the patient's hometown. The gap may be narrower than earlier assumed, Lindstrom says.


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