Tag Archives: NBC News

Follow the drama–lasik surgery

Since this is one reputation crisis playing out in real time, let’s keep following the lasik drama.

Fact one: there is a minor furor going on. Just check google and see all the current news reports, blog postings, etc.

Fact two: the furor was caused by the FDA holding a hearing–which they now did on April 25. The “news” as I mentioned in my last blog post was there was going to be a hearing. That’s the news hook–but the stories as they were broadcast over NBC and others led one to believe that the news was that the dangers of lasik were now being brought to light. That jump is what I consider egregious.

Fact three: as a medical procedure, lasik appears to me to be incredibly safe. Numbers vary from 7 million (in the Fox Report) to over 12 million (in the NBC report) as to how many US folks have had lasik surgery–that doesn’t count worldwide numbers. The FDA says they recognize that over 95% of the patients are “satisfied” with their results and less than 1% (according to Dr. Solomon) have severe side effects that impacts their vision.

Let me be clear–if I was in that 1% I would be concerned too. But, how many plastic surgery patients are “satisfied?” By my quick review walking the sidewalks of Beverly Hills, I would say a good 50% have a right to be very unhappy. And unhappiness does not equate with poor results or severe side effects.

It is perfectly right and appropriate for the FDA to hold hearings. They would be doing a disservice if they did not. What I object to, as strenuously as I can in the blog without becoming another ticked off blogger, is how the media/regulatory environment works to the detriment of most of us and our freedom to decide. Look at the headlines coming out of the hearing: (Fox News:

Patients Harmed by Lasik Surgery Alternate Between Fury, Despair at FDA Hearing

(obvious, I did a cut and paste here)

How would a headline like this work: “Experts demonstrate that lasik eye surgery one of the safest elective surgeries available.”  Nope, wouldn’t work. Wouldn’t get eyes glued to the screen or the paper. I’m not saying there weren’t sad stories and some people aren’t ticked off and have a right to be. Bad procedures, bad doctors and bad choices exist (note the story of one “victim” who insisted on having it despite the doctor advising against it–it’s not just docs that make bad choices.)

The entirely predictable process works like this (I described it in Now Is Too Late2):

– an event happens (in this case something really mild like FDA holding hearings

– news media figure out a way to use it to gather an audience

– method used is outrage and melodrama (black hats, white hats, that whole thing)

– elected officials or regulators view the outrage as meaning they should take action

– new laws are passed or more restrictive regulations issued NOT based on scientific reality, but the fear of appearing to not care and do nothing. Where is the old logic of government action that said, “Let’s not just do something, let’s stand here.”?

– freedom of choice is curtailed, costs skyrocket so fewer and fewer people can afford the benefits, and elected officials and regulators who are the most active at taking these steps get reelected or reappointed.

And it all starts because our “news” environment is driven by a singular need to attract and hold an audience.

Do I think we have a problem here? We have a problem here.

NBC News and Lasik surgery–an egregious example

We now take it as commonplace to see the kind of coverage that NBC News provided about lasik eye surgery. I think Brian Williams is the class act on network news and they have done a stellar job of set design, integration with msnbc.com, etc. But their coverage of lasik surgery is a great example of what is wrong with news today.

Here is the video of the report.

It starts with the teaser-which suggested (I am recalling from viewing the original report a couple of days ago) that there was new information about the dangers of lasik surgery. Get attention? As Williams suggested in this opening lines–this will be of high interest to those who got surgery or who are contemplating it.

What was the news? The FDA is holding hearings. That was the only news. But, what was the message conveyed? The lasik eye surgery is a highly risky procedure with potentially disabling side effects. What was the evidence? The sad experience of one young man. I want to take nothing away from the misery endured by this man who suffers from extreme dry eyes, apparently from his surgery.  But the story mentioned that 12.4 million people have had this surgery, that 700,000 people get it every year, and showed one doctor in the report that indicated he turns away a number of patients because they are not good candidates.

The reporter and NBC News will say in defense that see, they reported all the “good stuff,” but the truth is the way the story was set up by the teaser, the tone of it, and the singular focus on one pitiful case of surgery gone sideways left a clear and indelible message that this is something highly dangerous, under-regulated, with millions taking undue risks because doctors are hiding the risks. If anyone who watched it didn’t get that message let me know.

I have some sensitivity to the issue because a few years ago one of my clients had one of the largest and most successful lasik surgery clinics in North America. He was driven out of business by a huge jump in insurance premiums based on a class action lawsuit. The enterprising attorney was attempting to assemble a class for action, and got on Good Morning America–with a couple of patients (sisters I believe) who had surgery and complained about their problems. The truth was, they refused to come in for secondary treatment which is relatively common. They wanted the problem and didn’t want it to go away and the attorney wanted to assemble a class. Good Morning America was more than willing to comply. We offered to come on the show with them–they denied us the opportunity and gave us 15 minutes to offer a written statement. Which we did and they waved at the camera during the completely bogus report.

As a result of this combination of legal entrepreneurship with media ratings hunting, the lasik clinic with likely the highest safety and performance rating at that time had to be shut down.

It is common for the public to buy into the media’s own messiah-complex that they are operating for the public good–in this case trying to save innocent people from the horrors experienced by the gentleman pictured. But, they can and frequently do untold damage by these kinds of reports as well. Innocent people get hurt by bad surgery, and innocent people get hurt by audience-greedy journalists as well.