State cracks down on medi-spas that operate without doctors


Medi-spas are an increasingly popular option for cosmetic procedures. And they are legal in California if operated properly. But many are not, and the consequences for the patient can be severe.

Medical spas give the impression that some workers are medically trained. Because the fines for violations are so low, medi-spas are getting away with having no doctor. Now the state is cracking down.

Now under a doctor's supervision, Joanna Mello is healing from the laser burns she suffered a few months ago.

The registered nurse wanted some spider veins removed, but instead of going to a doctor, she went to a medical spa, where it was cheaper, but had no doctor present.

"Within a few minutes, I had developed severe red marks, and it was very apparent that they were burns," said Mello.

The International Spa Association says more than 1,500 medi-spas have opened in the U.S. from 2002 to 2010. Many are legal.

In California, they're supposed to be run by doctors. But often a business will pay doctors to lend their names and licenses but won't actually be there for elective procedures like laser hair removal or Botox.

"Esthetic procedures generate income and there are people who just want to jump on the bandwagon and make a lot of money," said Dr. Suzanne Kilmer, a dermatologist.

When a doctor isn't around for the procedure, frightening things can happen.

The American Society of Dermatologic Surgery released pictures of patients who are permanently disfigured.

A bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown this month cracks down on medi-spas beginning January 1 by increasing fines from roughly $1,200 to $50,000 if doctors aren't involved. Prison time is also possible. The measures are designed to protect consumers.

"So it is a medically owned establishment run as a medical practice, as opposed to a corporation that just comes in and wants to churn through a bunch of clients. We call them patients," said Kilmer.

Mello's leg has come a long way. She's glad a crackdown on medi-spas is coming so that fewer patients will suffer.

"It'll be there for the rest of my life," said Mello. "A good deal isn't always going to be a good outcome."

A defense attorney said the penalties are too strong: Sometimes businesses don't know they're breaking law. She feels an education campaign that tells medi-spas what they can and can't do is a better way to go.

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