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Laser Spine Institute sued over spinal fusion surgery


Tampa Bay Times

Jodie Tillman | Times Staff Writer

Published October 22, 2014

TAMPA — For people with back pain, Laser Spine Institute makes a tantalizing offer: high-tech surgeries that relieve suffering and let patients walk out the door in hours.

But a recent lawsuit alleges an Ohio man couldn’t even stand after his surgery at the Tampa center last year. He had to be taken to a hospital after a seven-hour spinal procedure left him with a permanent neurological injury, the documents say.

Ronald R. Davis, 44, states in the lawsuit that Laser Spine surgeons made mistakes that left him worse off than when he went in. Further, the lawsuit alleges, the complicated surgery should not have been attempted in an outpatient setting.

“The last time I talked to Mr. Davis, he was sitting on the floor and shaking his feet, trying to get the pain to go away,” said lawyer Steve Yerrid, who represents Davis in the case filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Laser Spine said in a statement that it is investigating but is “confident that our medical professionals provided a high level of care consistent with LSI’s quality standards, which are reflected by the 96 percent of our patients who report that they are satisfied with their outcomes.”

The Davis lawsuit is among several complaints faced by the Tampa-grown company, with offices in Cincinnati, Cleveland and St. Louis, as it launches a major expansion including a $56 million headquarters in the West Shore area. Laser Spine employs 800 people nationally, including 600 in Tampa.

Court documents filed this month in another case accuse Laser Spine of offering illegal incentives to lure patients, including paying for airfare, hotels and other out-of-pocket expenses, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. At least one of those patients, the report says, was insured through the federal Medicare program, which prohibits such inducements.

Laser Spine is still fighting a lawsuit filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court by wrestler Hulk Hogan, who alleges its surgeons performed a series of ineffective procedures on him that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Davis, the Ohio man, says he called Laser Spine in February 2013 after seeing one of its TV ads. Yerrid, a prominent plaintiff’s attorney, declined to make Davis available for an interview but said he hurt his back working in construction.

Davis initially was cleared for what he thought would be minimally invasive surgery on his upper back. But after arriving in Tampa, a Laser Spine physician told him he was not a candidate for laser surgery and instead required a more invasive procedure. He agreed to continue.

Over the course of seven hours, Dr. Mark Flood performed several procedures on Davis, including fusing two pairs of vertebrae in his upper spine.

Spinal fusion surgery joins vertebrae, usually with metal rods and screws, to stabilize a damaged spine. Lower spine, or lumbar region, fusions are far more common than ones in the upper spine, or thoracic region.

Later that afternoon and into the night, the lawsuit says, Davis couldn’t stand and had no sensation in his thighs. At 10:10 p.m., an ambulance transported Davis to Largo Medical Center, where he was discharged 11 days later.

It’s unclear what led surgeons to choose the fusion procedures. Laser Spine didn’t make physicians available for an interview. But earlier this year, the chief medical director, Dr. Michael Perry, told theTampa Bay Times for another story that spinal fusions make up only about 5 percent of the center’s cases.

“We typically look at fusion as a last resort,” Perry said in June.

Dr. Steven Atlas, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, has studied the escalation in back surgeries.He said in a phone interview this week that he has rarely heard of spinal fusions being performed in outpatient settings. Typically,they are performed in hospitals and involve stays from three to five days.

Fusions are associated with more complications than other spinal procedures, he said. “Spinal fusion is not something I think of as a simple surgical procedure,” he said.

Though many more surgeries are performed safely today on an outpatient basis than ever, this setting can pose risks. “When things go wrong, you don’t have the critical-care team right there to respond,” said Atlas, who was speaking generally, not about the Laser Spine case.

Laser Spine said in a statement that it screens patients so closely that only about five out of every 100 people who call to inquire about a procedure get surgery at the center. “We speak at length with those selected about the risks associated with our procedures, and for that matter, with any surgical procedure,” the statement says.