By Alex R. Thiersch, CEO of the American Med Spa Association
On July 31, 2018, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, issued a statement that announced the agency was concerned laser manufacturers were marketing their products for use in vaginal rejuvenation, a treatment that has become a sensation in the medical aesthetics industry in recent years. The agency cites “numerous” adverse outcomes as a driving factor in bringing this issue to light.
“As part of our efforts to promote women’s health, the FDA has cleared or approved laser and energy-based devices for the treatment of serious conditions like the destruction of abnormal or pre-cancerous cervical or vaginal tissue, as well as condylomas (genital warts),” said Gottlieb in the statement. “But the safety and effectiveness of these devices hasn’t been evaluated or confirmed by the FDA for ‘vaginal rejuvenation.’ In addition to the deceptive health claims being made with respect to these uses, the ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ procedures have serious risks. In some cases, these devices are being marketed for this use to women who have completed treatment for breast cancer and are experiencing symptoms caused by early menopause. The deceptive marketing of a dangerous procedure with no proven benefit, including to women who’ve been treated for cancer, is egregious.”
Elsewhere in the statement, Gottlieb mentions seven laser manufacturers who have been contacted regarding this issue—Alma Lasers, BTL Industries, Cynosure, InMode, Sciton, Thermigen and Venus Concept—and suggests that they could face sanctions if the agency’s concerns are not addressed to its satisfaction.
The statement has been covered by numerous media outlets and has drawn a great deal of mainstream attention to the procedure and the issue. But what is the issue, exactly, and do medical spas have anything to fear from providing vaginal rejuvenation and other procedures that are not directly specified by a device’s FDA approval?
Off-label, Not Off Limits
In most cases, it is perfectly legal for a physician to use FDA-approved medications and equipment in ways that are different from what the label specifically mentions, which is referred to as “off-label use.” It typically is up to a doctor’s own medical judgment to determine if a medication or tool can be used for other treatments. According to Jay D. Reyero, JD, partner with ByrdAdatto, a national law firm that focuses on medical aesthetics, “The FDA does not control a physician’s ability to prescribe off-label, as it is subject to the oversight of the applicable medical board.” All the lasers in question have been approved for use in the United States, albeit not specifically for use in combating particular conditions.
To hear more from Mr. Reyero on the subject listen to him elaborate on the topic on the Medical Spa Insider podcast.
“The lasers have been FDA-cleared for ablation and laser treatment of skin of various different parts of the body, including genitourinary tissue, as per the FDA clearance letter,” says Peter Castillo, MD, FACOG, director of the Women’s Pelvic Health Institute in Los Gatos, California. “But what they have not cleared it for is for other conditions as of yet. That takes time and various studies—well designed, randomized multi-center trials—to really accumulate enough data.”
Castillo sees Gottlieb’s statement as a reminder to manufacturers and doctors that lasers that are not approved specifically for vaginal rejuvenation treatments—and there are none at this point—should not be marketed as if they are, despite their actual efficacy.
“The letter’s primary purpose, the way I see it, was really just to remind physicians that they are not allowed to and should not promote the use of these lasers for the conditions that they are stating, though that does not really mean that they’re not effective treatments,” Castillo says.
Castillo cites the precedent of Botox, which originally was specified by the FDA for use in the treatment of incontinence caused by spinal cord injuries or multiple sclerosis, migraines, upper limb spasticity, pain caused by cervical dystonia, axillary hyperhidrosis (sweating), blepharospasm (eye spasms) in children with dystonia, and strabismus (crossed eyes) in children. The reduction of facial wrinkles is nowhere on this list, but it became by far the most common use of the drug and, subsequently, Botox has received three indications for cosmetic use.
“Botox had been used off-label for a decade before it got clearance,” Castillo explains. “The difference is that [Botox manufacturer] Allergan did not market it as an off-label use—they cannot. [Gottlieb’s statement], unfortunately, was needed, and it was necessary to put some of the manufacturers back on track and realizing that though that may be the case and perhaps this will be a viable treatment in the future, they’re not FDA-cleared for that and, as of yet, should not be marketed as such.”
Reining In the Rhetoric
This is not to say that Castillo agrees with everything in Gottlieb’s statement, however. Castillo is involved in clinical testing of laser equipment used for vaginal rejuvenation, and says that, in his experience and that of his colleagues conducting similar trials, the complications mentioned in the statement—including “numerous cases of vaginal burns, scarring, pain during sexual intercourse, and recurring or chronic pain”—are extremely uncommon.
“None of us have seen the level of complications that they alluded to in the statement, and no one that I have spoken to and none of us in our study groups have ever seen them outside of anticipated or expected effects of laser treatments,” he says.
“There is growing data. A variety of studies are going on, they are being carried out right now, and they have demonstrated very effective results and safety profiles for a variety of these lasers.”
According to Reyero, “Physicians who are performing vaginal rejuvenation or who are interested in providing vaginal rejuvenation should have a good understanding of available scientific and clinical data relating to the procedure in order to, in their professional judgment, determine it safe for patients.” Castillo feels that in the statement, Gottlieb exaggerates the potential risks of vaginal rejuvenation, and he is concerned that coverage by media outlets that picked up the story could scare people away from what he feels is a largely safe, very beneficial treatment.
“I think that statement from the FDA lost its purpose when they overstated the risks involved in using laser therapies that they’ve already cleared for use of skin ablation,” Castillo says. “Unfortunately, the purpose of it gets lost, and the message that resounds with these inflammatory statements by a variety of papers or other parties that are quick to jump on the potential risks that they stated and expanding on them to make it sound like people are getting harmed by these and that we shouldn’t be doing them.”
Reyero says, “I think physicians can combat any negative reaction to the FDA’s statement by equipping themselves and their staff members with information needed to ensure patients are fully informed and understand the risks about the procedure just like any other medical treatment.”
Despite the large amount of press coverage the statement has garnered, Castillo says that the hubbub has not had an adverse effect on his practice. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“The important thing here is that demand continues,” Castillo says. “The outcomes are real. They are palpable to the patient and to the provider, and it’s driven attention to a need and to a demand that’s being unmet. I have not had any decrease in my requests for therapy and I haven’t changed my practice, which has always been based on my clinical interpretation of their needs and patient selection. Those who practice medicine in the way they should are guided by clinical principles and clinical judgment. I see this as a continuing benefit to women and a service that we should continue to provide. And in time, the amount of data necessary to request clearance for those specific conditions and disease states will come, like everything else.”
According to Reyero, “I think the FDA letter will serve as a good push to those performing the procedure to reevaluate their practice and confirm that they are compliant with applicable rules. From advertising to patient education to the performance of the procedure itself, every facet should be carefully vetted so providers feel confident they have done all that is required to uphold the standard of care.”
Vaginal rejuvenation continues to grow in popularity, and patients are largely very satisfied—users of RealSelf.com currently express a 95% “worth it” rating for the procedure, which is impressive given its relatively high cost. However, laser equipment manufacturers should practice restraint when marketing products that are used for this treatment. Drawing unwanted attention from a governmental agency is never a good idea, and in this case it can easily be avoided by paying attention to what is and isn’t allowed. Gottlieb’s statement may overstate the problems associated with vaginal rejuvenation, but it should still be seen as a wake-up call for both equipment manufacturers and physicians.
For more information see the joint statement on this topic issued by the American Med Spa Association and the law firm of ByrdAdatto.