Whether you’re trying to fix a computer virus or a leak on a roof, experts usually recommend more conservative measures first before resorting to the most extreme options that are pricier, riskier and often irreversible. Your health is the same way. Eight out of ten Americans suffer from back pain, and although their causes may vary—anyone suffering with back pain will tell you they’re willing to try almost anything to find relief. Here at Georgia Clinic of Chiropractic, we have had the privilege of treating and helping a wide range of patients in the Augusta community with their back pain, helping them back on their feet or in some cases, prevented a need for back surgery. Unfortunately, some pursue back surgery before even trying more conservative and safer methods first, such as chiropractic. Below is an excerpt from an eye-opening article written by reporter David Armstrong that Bloomberg Businessweek recently published:
When Bonnie Balch’s online search for a back surgeon led her to the Laser Spine Institute, it was no accident. The day surgery company has become a master of grabbing patients’ eyes on the Web, using search optimization consultants and a strategy that often gains the company top billing in Google listings at a cost that rivals estimate at a minimum of $100,000 a month. Balch, however, wishes her surfing had taken her elsewhere. Her October 2008 surgery at Laser Spine’s Tampa clinic left her incontinent, with a dangerous spinal fluid leak. Still in pain after care costing $90,176 at Laser Spine, she needed a second surgery elsewhere to get relief. “They are in it to make money,” says Balch, 63, a Longmont (Colo.) flight attendant who is suing Laser Spine for malpractice in Florida.
Laser Spine is part of a boom in ambulatory care centers with physicians in residence as owner-practitioners. There are 5,000-plus such centers in the U.S., 90 percent with doctors as investors. Back surgery is a prominent part of the trend.
Tampa-based Laser Spine and rivals in California, Texas, and New York promise no overnight stays and quick pain relief. Laser Spine’s surgical technique uses lasers to burn off, or ablate, sensitive nerve endings followed by a disc “decompression” that removes material or bone that presses on nerves.
Laser Spine routinely charges patients $30,000 for its procedure, more than double the typical price for a decompression elsewhere. Balch and other patients have brought 15 malpractice lawsuits since October 2009, a period in which the company performed about 7,500 procedures based on its 2010 estimates.
Nine surgeons told Bloomberg Businessweek the company is doing surgery that is often unnecessary or inappropriate. The evidence that ablation helps patients is “pretty weak,” says Dr. Roger Chou, a physician at the Oregon Health & Science University and director of the American Pain Society’s clinical guidelines program. “Even in studies showing some benefit, the benefit is small and doesn’t last,” Chou says.
Officials at Laser Spine, which also operates centers in Scottsdale, Ariz., Philadelphia, and Oklahoma City, say in-house surveys show positive outcomes for more than 87 percent of patients. “We know it works,” says Dotty J. Bollinger, Laser Spine’s chief medical operations officer. “We see it every day.” The company declined to comment on all pending patient lawsuits.
Laser Spine logged a 34 percent profit margin for the period from 2006 to 2009 and hit $109 million in revenues in 2010.
Founder James St. Louis, 56, was a year out of personal bankruptcy when he began seeking investors for the company in 2003, records show. Now he owns seven cars, a $10.3 million Florida mansion, and an $8.3 million house in Aspen. He declined an interview request. Court documents indicate St. Louis was slated to receive a 25 percent stake in the firm, which would have entitled him to about $19 million of $77 million in distributions the company has made. Laser Spine spokeswoman Bollinger says the 25 percent figure is not accurate; she wouldn’t discuss individuals’ stakes. Other investors in the firm include Dallas investment firm EFO Holdings, managed by William P. Esping, and two founders of Outback Steakhouse operator OSI Restaurant Partners.
Some patients say they’ve tapped retirement accounts or taken out second mortgages to pay Laser Spine’s premium prices. The insurer for Hulon Taylor, 61, paid $36,940 for his surgery, payment records show. Taylor says he met his surgeon, Dr. Craig Wolff, less than an hour before he went into the operating room in 2009. Laser Spine staff told him it would take 45 minutes and he’d be back at his hotel that evening.
Taylor never made it. After the surgery, his stomach was “really hurting.” He says Wolff told him it was just gas and nurses told him to get dressed and go. As he put his clothes on, he fainted. He woke up at Tampa General Hospital. He lost so much blood from internal bleeding from two cut arteries that he suffered a heart attack, medical records show. Taylor was unable to return to his job at a utility company near his home in Bonifay, Fla. He sued Laser Spine and recently settled.
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Before even considering extreme measures such as back surgery, a consultation with a chiropractor first could save you thousands of dollars, or worse yet, irreversible damage. Feel free to read the patient success stories on our website–at Georgia Clinic of Chiropractic, we’ve been noted for providing oustanding care in the Augusta community by going above and beyond for our patients. We recognize and understand that each patient is different, and we promise to give you the care and attention you deserve.
Georgia Clinic of Chiropractic is conveniently located off Furys Ferry Rd in Martinez, Georgia and provides quality chiropractic care to the Augusta, Martinez, and Evans communities. Visit our main website at www.georgia-clinic.com. To schedule an appointment, call (706) 814-5053 or use our online form to schedule online.
The Georgia Clinic of Chiropractic Blog is written by Dr. Mark Huntsman.