Advancing laser treatments

Article from 2019/2020 Impact of Giving Annual Report

Over a century ago, Emmert Wolf wrote that ‘a man is only as good as his tools’. For Associate Professor Philip Bekhor who is the Laser Unit Director of the RCH’s Dermatology Department, it’s a saying that he can relate to.

Philip and the wider team work with advanced laser technology treating over 1,000 babies and children each year with vascular birthmarks and vein-based anomalies, the most common being port wine stain birthmarks.

“As a professional, I am a laser operator, so I’m entirely dependent on the equipment I get to use. As soon as there is something better available, if I’m not using it, it means I am providing second rate treatment,” said Philip.

Thanks to the generosity of Victorians through the Good Friday Appeal, the Dermatology Department is able to remain at the forefront of laser treatment. Thanks to philanthropy, the Laser Unit was able to purchase a state of the art pulsed dye laser. The laser, which is the gold standard for treating birthmarks and vascular lesions, means shorter treatment times for patients and reduced pain for children undergoing treatment. The laser is the only one of its type in use in a children’s hospital in Australia.

“Laser technology is constantly improving, and new equipment and the latest technology is essential to providing the best possible care and service,” said Philip.

“Due to amazing generosity we have been able to utilise this technology early; it means the RCH is at the cutting-edge. The addition of this laser has already translated directly into improvements in care for children with birthmarks and has allowed me to be the best doctor I can be, so I am extremely grateful.”

The laser works by selectively targeting blood vessels without damaging the surrounding tissue or outer layer of skin. What makes the laser unique is it has a much larger treatment spot than previous models, meaning babies and children will have faster treatment times and less discomfort. For children who need ongoing treatment, or for those who are treated in infancy before a general anaesthetic is required, the laser will revolutionise their treatment.

“The Department’s previous laser had a 10 millimetre treatment spot, whereas this laser is 15 millimetres. With the 15 millimetre laser there will be 44 pulses compared with 100 pulses with the old equipment.  This means treatment times are more than halved and the discomfort period for babies is much shorter, so it’s much better for all concerned,” said Philip.

Whilst treatment of most birthmarks is often not medically required, many parents choose to have the birthmarks treated because they worry about the impact on the child’s self-esteem as they grow, particularly if it is in a prominent position.

“Some birthmarks can be really upsetting for kids, especially if they’re large, dark or on the face. It’s unfortunate that if children have any kind of obvious mark, regardless if it’s small or large and they are constantly being asked ‘what’s that?’, it can take a toll on the child’s self-confidence,” said Philip.

“If you have a very bright mark, and you can then reduce its size and or colour to a pale pink, you see the person and not the mark; it can improve quality of life. After I have treated a child with a birthmark, the feedback from parents is always what a positive impact it had on the child’s life.”

The new laser technology has already helped patients like 16 month old Hugo, who has been undergoing treatment  for a port wine stain on his face since he was five weeks old. Hugo has had seven treatments, including his latest with the new laser, and will need regular treatment until he starts school and then yearly maintenance treatments into adulthood.

“We are extremely fortunate at the RCH that we have been able to get philanthropic support to purchase this laser and that we are able to provide such a comprehensive laser service,” said Philip.

“The addition of this technology has enabled the Laser Unit to continue to provide the highest quality of care to babies and children and develop novel methods of laser treatment for birthmarks.”