The growth of laser eye surgery could lead to a tidal wave of litigation against eye specialists, doctors' groups admitted yesterday after revealing that lawsuits over the technique have more than doubled in the past six years.
While some claims allege faulty surgery, the Medical Defence Union, the UK's largest insurer for doctors, said many more centred on patients' "unrealistic expectations". A spokeswoman for the MDU said: "Many cases take years to reach us, because people may not sue for years after treatment. It is likely to get worse as people who have been treated in the past few years and are dissatisfied take action against the clinics and doctors who carried out the procedure."
She said: "It's not as if they have a life-threatening illness - these are people who are wearing glasses or contact lenses, and they could just keep wearing them without ill effect for the rest of their life."
The MDU declined to reveal the precise number of legal claims over laser eye surgery now outstanding against its members, but it is thought to be fewer than 200. But that has risen from a tiny number since the laser technique was made legal in the 1990s.
There is also growing evidence that many clinics are making exaggerated claims for the procedure - and that more competition, allied to a higher failure rate than is usually acknowledged, is also fuelling the overblown promotion, which is leading to disappointment.
Earlier this month, the medical journal Opthalmology said the failure rate for eye surgery was one in 10, not the one in 1,000 figure widely advertised. With roughly 100,000 people having laser eye surgery each year, that would mean that 10,000 gained no benefit.
In February the Consumers' Association warned that people having surgery were "gambling with their sight", while some clinics did not highlight possible side-effects.
And in February last year, the Advertising Standards Authority censured the Boots chain for giving the impression that anyone having Lasik treatment would no longer require glasses or contact lenses, and that complications with the operation had only arisen in America when in truth some people in Britain were being treated for after-effects.
Surgery uses a laser to cut a carefully shaped piece out of the cornea, the transparent protective covering over the eye's lens. Choosing the correct shape can correct a misshapen lens, which would otherwise require glasses or contact lenses. The operation, which is permanent and irreversible, takes about 30 minutes.
One potential complication, corneal ectasia, can necessitate a corneal transplant. According to a review from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, other minor but troublesome complications such as dry eyes and night vision problems occur "relatively frequently".
The MDU now advises consultants to give patients "enough time to ask questions and absorb information" before making a decision. It adds: "Ideally, the surgeon should be the one to obtain patient consent but where this impractical the person must be qualified and trained." Doctors must have the the necessary skills and experience to do the surgery and "should be honest about how their results compare with others".Reuse content