Scrutinizing Laser Eye Surgery

Actor Dustin Hoffman, left, and British actress Emma Thompson joke together before a press conference to promote their latest movie. "Stranger Than Fiction", in Paris, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2006.
There were 846,000 laser eye operations in the United States last year.

This year that number is projected at 1.5 million, a 76 percent jump!

But as CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone found, public demand and visions of fat profits for surgeons can bring trouble in the blink of an eye.

On San Francisco's busy California Street, some people couldn't believe their eyes.

Right in view of a sidewalk window patients were having laser surgery, the kind that's supposed to fix their vision and allow them to throw away their glasses.

It's one way to get attention in a fast-growing business marked by advertising and infomercials, by price cutting and competition -- and that's putting physicians on a road that worries eye surgeon Dr. Dave Edminston.

"Money, marketing and medicine - it's a bad intersection," he says.

And the money can be huge. Some surgeons, charging up to $5,000 a patient, have been operating on 20 people a day. The math, says Dr. Edmiston, tells a worrisome story.

"Nobody is worth $100,000 a day," he says. "Hey it's obscene."

The most popular surgical method, called Lasik, takes only a few minutes. First a flap is cut in the cornea. Then a few bursts of a laser beam reshape the eye. It's so quick patients and profits can mount by the hour.

"We're in and out of there just like cattle," says Sherie Wong.

When Wong went to a San Francisco clinic called LaserVue, it seemed like an assembly line, she says.

Says Wong, "There were about 20 people waiting to have their surgical procedure done," -- by the same surgeon.

LaserVue was in such a hurry, the operation started before the local anaesthetic numbed her eyes, she says.

So could she feel the blade begin to cut her cornea?

"Oh it was awful," she says. "It was so swift you could feel it was a razor blade just slicing over your eyeball - just slicing it."

In the Spotlight
Visit Surgical Eyes Web site, a patient support site, run by Ron Link, dealing with complications that can result from laser eye surgery.
Now Wong has joined a class action suit accusing LaserVue of taking another dangerous shortcut: treating as many as four patients in a row without sterilizing equpment or changing the blade that cuts the cornea.

LaserVue says it's stopped reusing blades and says there's no evidence anybody got a disease.

"Who would want to risk getting AIDS?" asks Dr. Peter Brett.

Brett, a cancer specialist who joined the class action suit, had successful surgery at LaserVue but wonders why surgeons would ignore basic precautions.

"The only thing I can think about would be...greed and money." he adds.

And in this big money industry surgeons themselves warn that patients can't always expect to come out with 20/20 eyesight.

"It's buyer beware with all these procedures," says Dr. William Ellis.

Find out what buyers should know when they shop for the miracle of sight.