Clinics offer huge sums to poach NHS eye surgeons

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Demand for laser eye-surgery to correct poor sight is so far ahead of the supply of surgeons trained to carry out the procedure that private clinics are offering financial packages worth more than three times NHS salaries to attract the right staff.

An advertisement in the current British Medical Journal for the Optimax chain of laser eye-clinics offers qualified ophthalmologists the opportunity to earn "up to £250,000 per annum". A second advertisement placed by the Ultralase chain offers surgeons up to £200,000 a year.

The sums are well above the £68,000 annual salary paid to NHS consultant surgeons at the top of the scale (excluding merit awards).

Ronnie Stevenson, clinical adviser to the College of Optometrists and a research optometrist at Gartnavel Hospital, in Glasgow, said: "There is a big demand for this treatment and a shortage of trained surgeons to carry it out so the clinics are having to pay top dollar."

The main treatment offered by the clinics is "lasik", a procedure in which a small flap is cut in the cornea and the surface re-shaped underneath it to alter the focus before the flap is replaced. The aim is to remove the need for patients to wear glasses.

Lasik was introduced in the late 1980s but only became routine from the mid-1990s. It is replacing the older technique of photo-refractive keratectomy (PRK), a less sophisticated procedure which involves the re-shaping of the surface of the cornea without removal and replacement of the flap.

Mr Stevenson said: "There have been too many charlatans doing lasik. The old PRK method doesn't demand a tremendous amount of skill but lasik does. "My advice would be to make sure you ask the surgeon how many he has done. I certainly wouldn't want to be in the first 40 or 50 or so."

Charges for lasik range from £1,250 per eye at Boots Opticians, which claims to have a "unique radar tracking system developed for Nasa" to provide safer and more precise results, to £895 at Ultralase and £810 at Optimax.

The treatment of both eyes takes 15 to 20 minutes, although the laser surgery itself lasts only a few seconds.

Lisa Palillo, marketing director of Ultralase, which operates 11 clinics carrying out 2,000 lasik treatments a month, said the high pay for the ophthalmic surgeons reflected the skill of the job. She said: "We are not keeping up with the demand. We have to hire French and American surgeons and they have to be top-notch.

"Other countries such as Germany, Spain and Italy are way ahead of us in terms of market penetration."

Ms Palillo said that the US Army had declared this month that soldiers who were shortsighted would be encouraged to have lasik treatment because it was safer than wearing glasses in combat.

However, Mr Stevenson said there were still problems for many patients who had had lasik, with a halo effect created around lights at night, which could make it difficult driving after dark, although the technique was always improving.

Margaret Hallendorff, chief executive of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, said laser correction of shortsightedness was a "booming business" in which ophthalmic surgeons could earn "huge sums" but she was prevented under the college's charter from commenting further on ophthalmologists' pay and conditions.

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