Report into woman's 'severe' burns calls for more regulation of NZ laser industry

woman getting laser treatment
There are calls for more regulation of the laser industry after a woman was left with burns, blisters, and severe scarring. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The risk of burns and scarring from therapeutic laser skin treatments will remain high unless there are changes to how the industry is regulated, according to a new report from the Health and Disability Commissioner's office. 

The office of the Commissioner released a report on Monday after finding an Auckland skin clinic in breach of the 'Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights' in its care of a woman who suffered severe burns and blistering following laser treatment.

According to the full report, the woman in her 30s attended the clinic for management of broken capillaries and redness to her cheeks back in 2018. 

The beauty therapist treated the woman's capillaries with three sessions of laser: A non-invasive treatment that uses concentrated light to heat the target area to treat a range of conditions, including broken capillaries.

Although the beauty therapist was reportedly trained "for three months" by the clinic manager, she had no certified training in the use of the specific laser machine used. However the clinic manager claims the therapist had a year's experience in using the laser and many "happy customers". 

During the third treatment session, the beauty therapist increased the laser settings, which resulted in severe burns to the woman's cheeks. 

The customer said that by the time she had returned home, both of her cheeks had started to swell and blister. 

"It was very painful, there was a large amount of swelling and there were multiple large weeping blisters over my cheeks," she said, adding she took photographs and emailing the clinic to ask whether this type of reaction "was normal". 

The clinic manager told the woman that she should treat the burns by "applying a cool compress", sleeping with her head elevated, and "taking an anti-inflammatory if that suits you". 

But the woman required ongoing medical treatment for the damage, initially seeing a GP who prescribed antibiotics and a steroid cream to treat the burns. Almost a year later, the woman saw an appearance medicine nurse at another skin treatment clinic to treat severe scarring and laser burn.

In his report, former Deputy Commissioner Kevin Allan stated the clinic failed to support and educate its staff adequately. He also found the clinic failed to ensure that staff met the requirements of the local council's Health and Hygiene Code of Practice.

Allan laid out a series of recommendations for the clinic, including that its staff undertake comprehensive training in laser treatments, provide evidence of training for staff on requirements of the local council health and hygiene codes of practice, and develop a process for recording incidents and near misses.

He also recommended that the clinic, the manager, and the beauty therapist apologise to the client.

These issues "are not new to the industry" according to Allen, as the use of laser is basically unregulated in New Zealand, despite the significant risk of injury when used incorrectly.

"In my view, [these incidents] will continue to occur unless there are changes to how the use of laser is regulated," he stated in his conclusion.