Friday, March 18, 2011

Sick of waiting: Are some Canadians paying for expensive, risky medical treatment?

The pain from his affliction left him desperate for a medical solution.

Randy Richmond is writing a three part series, Patients losing patience,which is taking a look at the hundreds of thousands of seriously ill Canadians who have been left without satisfactory care by the Canadian heath system. Richmond is focusing on the folk who are going outside the country seeking medical help.

Randy is a writer I really liked when I worked at the paper. He's an excellent reporter. I'm sure this series will be part of his WONA (Western Ontario Newspaper Awards) portfolio next year. Still, this first story, as interesting as it was, left me with some serious questions, such as: "What is the Laser Spine Institute?"

You see this question was important to me as I also have a bad back. I have come to believe, based on what I've been told by a number of doctors, that when it comes to bad backs often less treatment may be the best treatment. I read in a Harvard Medical School health newsletter that "doctors are beginning to question whether too many surgeries are performed to treat degenerative disease. As for herniated disks, a recent study found that surgical and nonsurgical treatments worked equally well." The newsletter editorial told me "the decision whether to have surgery is a matter of patient preference more than anything else."

On LiveStrong.com I read that the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic both advise trying other less intrusive therapies, like massage, physical therapy and anti-inflammation drugs before back surgery. Laser surgery has been touted as the latest, least invasive, most successful technique with the least amount of recovery time but these hospitals warn that there are several disadvantages to laser spine surgery.

Without a cane, I would not get to my computer.
Unsuccessful back surgeries have become so common in the States that there is now an acronym: FBSS (Failed Back Surgery Syndrome.)

My back can be so bad that it drops me to my knees but my family doctor has poo-pooed my complaints. High tech laser surgery has never been an option. It has never been offered to me by my present doctor nor by my former.

I've been advised to apply cold to alleviate pain and to prevent or reduce the swelling. After 48 hours I've been told to apply warmth to increase blood flow and promote healing. I should limit bed rest to a couple of days, at most,  and then add limited exercise therapy. The theory is that strong, flexible muscles are less prone to injury and will help to strengthen the back and support the spine.

All my family doctors over the years have given me sheets detailing back exercises. I have never been given so much as a prescription for the pain. For me, this has been the extent of the Canadian solution to serious back pain. And so far, it's working. Hold the knife and hold the laser, thank-you. (I wrote this in 2011. I'm adding this in 2018. My back pain situation may have improved a little.  I'm glad that I have not had back surgery.)

In Randy's first installment, a fellow from Windsor suffering from a spinal problem was unable to get the medical help he perceived he needed. In desperation, he turned to Kelly Meloche, the head of Windsor's International Health Care Providers.

The man told Randy. "Before I knew it, I was in Tampa, Florida, at the Laser Spine Institute. There, doctors did a laser procedure not available in Canada. The fellow said, "I walked off the operation table. I felt great. It was crazy. It was almost surreal."

As it turned out, the 2007 operation worked only for a time. Things looked great for a year and a half, then the Windsor fellow's headaches returned. I wondered if his experience was common. I googled "Laser Spine Institute Tampa complaints" and I read:

My husband had surgery in May 2008. A decent experience, and he was mostly pain free after...for a few months. Now he is just as he was before surgery. Why? I can't explain it, but this certainly makes the out of pocket payment not worth it for us. Apart from the medical, they dropped us like a hot potato after the cash was in hand. Multiple phone calls were not returned. A 3 month and 6 month follow up came in the same envelope. When we managed to reach someone, and complain about calls not being returned, we were directed to call others on the staff. Apparently they were too busy to call us. Insurance forms were not submitted as promised upon our departure - took 4 months to get them to make the claims. BTW, our next door neighbor also went there with unsuccessful results, and the same dismissal. They don't like it when you do not become a new testimonial!

I looked down the comment list. Some were positive and then I spotted one from a Canadian out of Lachine, Quebec.

Don't go there!! Please I beg of you not to waste your money or your health. I had a discectomy done at LSI in 2008 and they ruined my back for life. Not only did they damage my nerve endings, they permanently destabilized my spine. My current neurosurgeon is not sure if my S1 nerve will ever fully recover. I had to be rushed to the emergency ward the evening after the LSI surgery. LSI did not take any steps to rectify the issue. The hospital informed me that I was not the first patient from LSI to be rushed to the ER after surgery.

I read more comments:
  • . . . all I can say about LSI is DO NOT GO THERE!!!
  • . . . everything was fine for six weeks and then the pain came back. now it's as bad as ever.
  • . . . bad experience with LSI. I am in much more pain than before I walked in.
  • . . . Do NOT go to LSI. I had surgery there on Sept. 26, 2007. I cannot describe the hell I have been through, physically and financially, with these people . . . filing suit for medical malpractice, fraud, and malfeasance.

To be fair, the Windsor fellow still credits the laser surgery in Florida for relieving much of his pain, although he was left with a $17,000 medical fee. But the laser operation didn't stop him from seeking more medical help. He is now crossing the border at Windsor to travel into Michigan to get $1200 botox injections.

As I said, not all the comments on the Internet about LSI are negative. One person wrote: "I had surgery on July 16, 2008 and have considered it a great success."

So, what does one believe? I leave the final word to Mark McLaughlin, MD, FACS, FAANS, from Princeton who wrote an article titled: The Laser Myth in Spine Surgery

Laser Spine Surgery: It has almost zero usefulness in your spine surgery and in fact may be harmful - R. McLaughlin MD

No laser surgery for me, thank you. Now, where did I put those sheets of doctor-recommended back strengthening exercises?

The following is here simply because it was in the original post. It has been removed as of March 2018.

On the other hand there are the newspaper articles, such as the ones from the St. Petersburg Times, about a questionable Florida surgeon who gained fame for his laser approach to curing spinal problems:  Back doctor sues and Is surgeon innovative, or unfit? or this article titled Treat the Leg or Pull it?

A couple of months after Randy Richmond did his article, Bloomberg did a story on the Florida laser spine surgery clinics: Laser Spine Surgery More Profitable Than Google Sees Complaints. Follow the link if you're interested.

I don't know what to believe but I have decided not to go to Florida. No laser surgery for me, thank you. Now, where did I put those sheets of doctor-recommended back strengthening exercises?

If you haven't guessed, I support the Canadian health care system. Click the link to discover why.

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