LASIK eye surgery is a wildly popular elective surgical procedure that is designed to correct poor vision. More and more people each year decide to forego the use of glasses or contact lenses, instead opting to have LASIK surgery to permanently correct any deficiencies related to their sight. Like any surgical procedure, LASIK is not without its risks, and doctors who improperly perform LASIK procedures can be held liable under medical malpractice laws. Read on to learn more about LASIK surgery risks and malpractice.
What is LASIK Surgery?
LASIK is an acronym for “Laser-Assisted in Situ Keratomiluesis.” It is a procedure, developed by Greek doctors, used to correct vision problems. LASIK has been used to correct astigmatism, hyperopia (farsightedness) and myopia (nearsightedness). All of these conditions generally necessitate the wearing of some some type of corrective lens, be it traditional glasses or contact lenses.
Ophthalmologists -- medical doctors specializing in eyes and vision -- perform LASIK surgery. Designed as an outpatient procedure, LASIK surgery involves the creation of a flap in the cornea of the eye, through which the surgeon can access the corneal stroma, or the inner part of the cornea. Using a laser, the surgeon then remodels the corneal stroma to correct any deficiencies in vision. Once the corneal stroma is reshaped and remodeled, the corneal flap is repositioned.
Recovery is normally complete in a couple of weeks, and involves antibiotics and anti-inflammatory eye drops. It is also recommended that patients avoid harsh or bright light and refrain from rubbing their eyes. In some instances, bandage contact lenses are placed, but these are typically removed after a few days.
LASIK Surgery Risks
While LASIK surgery is minimally invasive and the risks involved are much smaller compared to other types of eye surgery, any time the eyes are surgically altered, there are risks.
Permanent damage to a patient’s vision, up to and including blindness, is possible. Infection, inflammation, dryness and ectasia (corneal thinning) are all potential side-effects, as well as complications with the corneal flap that include “sands of Sahara syndrome” and other conditions. The risks of LASIK surgery should be discussed during the pre-operative consultation, and again immediately prior to surgery. Without proper discussion of the risks of LASIK, a patient cannot provide informed consent, which is required before most medical procedures are performed. (Learn more about informed consent and medical malpractice.)
Many of the risks of LASIK involve issues with the corneal flap. The aforementioned “sands of Sahara syndrome” (medically known as diffuse lamellar keratitis) occurs when infiltrates accumulate under the corneal flap, which take on the appearance of grains of sand. If not recognized and treated promptly, DLK can cause permanent damage to a patient’s eye and vision. So, too, can inflammations or improper placement of the flap post-surgery.
LASIK Surgery Malpractice
Ophthalmologists, like any other surgeons, are bound by the medical standard of care when performing LASIK or any other procedure.
The standard of care is the degree of caution that a reasonably prudent physician -- in the same or similar circumstances -- would provide to a patient. The standard of care is a local standard, meaning that there is no universal standard of care. The standard of care in Metro Detroit is likely different from the standard of care in rural Arkansas. Ophthalmologists performing LASIK surgery are bound by their local standard of care. If they deviate from that standard and a patient is injured, they could be on the hook for medical malpractice.
Unlike in most malpractice cases, the majority of LASIK malpractice cases involve missed contraindications as opposed to errors during the procedure itself. Contraindications are pre-existing conditions in a patient that make them a poor candidate for LASIK due to the low odds of success and the high probability of complications resulting in permanent injury.
Examples of contraindications are a thin cornea, or a cone-shaped cornea. Doctors are required by the standard of care for LASIK to ensure that these conditions -- which can result in injury to the patient -- are not present prior to performing surgery. If a doctor knows there are contraindications present and proceeds with the LASIK procedure anyway, he has likely committed malpractice.
It is important to note that there must be an injury for a LASIK malpractice case to be sustainable. If you find out, after successful surgery, that you were not an ideal candidate for the procedure, you cannot file a malpractice lawsuit based upon what might have happened. Unless a surgeon breached his duty to comply with the standard of care, and that breach actually caused some injury or damage, your case will not be sustainable.
To learn more about what you'll need to prove if you decide to file a lawsuit over a botched LASIK procedure, check out all the articles in our Proving Medical Malpractice topic.