BOSTON (CBS) – You’ve probably seen the ads for laser hair removal, inexpensive Botox and chemical peels. More and more, these services are being done at medical spas instead of doctor’s offices.
There are hundreds of med spas in Massachusetts and some people are sounding an alarm, saying as the industry grows, so do the numbers of injuries and lawsuits.
Johanna Searles of Agawam still has scars from laser hair removal gone bad.
“I kept saying ‘please, please stop. It’s burning,’” Searles told the I-Team of her visit to a med spa.
Johanna won a voucher for the treatment. She said the facility looked so professional, she figured it must be safe.
“It had a doctor’s name right on the door. She had told me it was under a doctor’s supervision. They all wore white coats,” she explained.
Like many med spas, the name on the door belonged to a medical director who was rarely onsite.
Med spas offer treatments using powerful lasers, as well as injectable like Botox or Juvederm. According to state law they are supposed to be licensed with the Department of Public Health as clinics unless they are fully owned and operated by a doctor or a nurse practitioner. According to state law these medical grade treatments are supposed to be done “under the supervision” of a nurse practitioner or doctor.
But supervision is not clearly defined. State regulators say it could include a doctor being on site or just putting protocols in place.
There are no set of standards for medical directors either. We found one medical director who oversees more than 40 med spas. He buys the lasers and prescription Botox which can only be purchased by a doctor. But while he insists he does training, he rarely steps foot in the spas.
The I-Team found one of those med spas is run by a person who was once charged with being part of an illegal liposuction ring.
“This is kind of the wild west of medicine at this point,” says Dr. Matthew Avram, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
He was part of a study which documented a rising number of injuries and lawsuits related to med spas.
Avram and other doctors say they routinely see patients in their offices who have been burned or had other negative side effects.
“These are powerful devices, powerful injections that are being performed and if they’re not being performed by someone with excellent training and skill, you can end up being harmed,” says Avram.
Negative side effects are the exception rather than a rule as long as proper procedures are followed according to Alex Thiersch of the American Med Spa Association.
“Most of them are very, very safe,” he told the I-Team.
In many cases the person doing the injecting is a skilled nurse and some laser technicians do have extensive training. Still, ideally, a doctor should be present, he says.
Even Thiersch admits many of the med spas are not following the confusing patchwork of laws that exist in most states to regulate them.
“I would say that at least half to 60 percent of the medical spas operating nationwide are not operating in full compliance of the law,” Thiersch says.
The I-Team asked the Department of Public Health if enough is being done to protect consumers. They responded that med spas performing injectable and high level laser treatments need to be licensed as clinics.
And yet, a list of licensed clinics provided by DPH included fewer than 10 of the hundreds of med spas operating in the state.
It leaves customers like Johanna without much protection in a billion dollar beauty industry.
“You pay for something, thinking you’re going to get a service done, thinking you’re under the care of a doctor or a doctor is supervising these workers, and there’s nothing. There’s no regulation,” she said.