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Eye surgery business grows more robust as Americans age

Dr. Barbara Smit finished her fourth eye surgery by 10 a.m. Monday and began preparing for another. It’s a typically busy morning at the Spokane Eye Clinic’s new surgery center.

The building, erected along Interstate 90 near downtown, was a $10.9 million project and focus of community curiosity during the past year, as dollars became scarce and health care reforms and cost controls dominated the national debate.

Yet eye care – specifically eye surgeries for an aging population – is a growing and recession-tough business.

It is estimated that eight in 10 Americans need eye correction of some sort, and Spokane is no different, Smit said.

The most common procedure at the clinic is cataract surgery, replacing the eye’s natural lens with an artificial lens to correct cloudiness. “If you live long enough, you’ll need it,” she said.

Indeed, within the next decade more than 30 million people in the U.S. will have cataracts, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Each year 1.35 million cataract operations are performed nationally, at a cost of about $3.5 billion. That’s nearly $2,600 per procedure. Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed outpatient surgical procedures, the CDC said earlier this year.

Donna James, a sign language interpreter for the Mead School District, had cataract surgery on her left eye Monday morning and was sitting up drinking coffee and snacking on a muffin in the post-op area within 15 minutes.

“This was so easy,” she said.

The surgery is quick and painless. Lying awake during the procedure, James described it as looking into a kaleidoscope.

“I’m already looking forward to having my right eye done,” James said.

She left the center within two hours of her surgery and anticipated getting back to work this week after a checkup.

Unlike years ago, when cataract surgery required immobilization and a long recovery time, technological leaps have given surgeons a 95 percent-plus success rate and reduced recovery times.

The Spokane Eye Clinic, with other offices in north Spokane and Spokane Valley, is among several in the region that perform the popular Lasik surgery that has corrected the vision of millions after years of wearing glasses and contacts.

Smit said the center, founded in 1955, is owned by its 12 physician partners. The new surgery center has five operating rooms.

The clinic, she said, has 150 employees and serves as an eye surgery referral center for a region extending from the Canadian border south into Oregon, west to the Cascades and east to draw patients from Montana.

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