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Chamber delivers oxygenated relief

A group of Ashland doctors have opened the Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment Center of Southern Oregon, offering a treatment for ailments ranging from wounds to anemia.

The $80,000 device offers a pure oxygen environment inside a pressurized chamber for about 90 minutes at a cost of $200, much of it covered by Medicare, said Dr. B. Monte Stewart, director of Bear Creek Surgery Center. Other collaborating doctors are Wendy Schilling, Nancy Noyce, Bakir Ali, Dawn Lemanne and Scott Sherr. The chamber is in medical offices at 1801 Highway 99 N.

“We increase the amount of oxygen going into the blood stream,” says Stewart. “It’s under pressure of two atmospheres. It feels like you’re 30 feet under water. It dissolves more oxygen into body fluids that can then get to tissues. Some conditions (ailments) are caused by lack of oxygen, perhaps from surgery and radiation damage.”

They note hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) is used for treatment of "on label" conditions, meaning those approved by the Food & Drug Administration and, therefore, generally covered by insurance. The long list of ailments includes carbon monoxide poisoning, retinal artery occlusion, crush injury, diabetic lower extremity wounds, gas gangrene, necrotizing soft tissue infections, burns and anemia.

“Off label” conditions aren’t approved by FDA and generally aren’t insured but research has shown the treatment provides benefits there, too, they say. These include brain injury, cancer, cerebral palsy, chronic pain, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, macular degeneration, migraine, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, arthritis, stroke and ulcerative colitis.

It’s also helpful in getting over the aches and pains of long-distance running, says Stewart.

Noyce says Medicare pays for on label treatments and many insurers follow that, but they have had “good luck advocating” to get many other insurers agreeable to off label treatments.

Asante Ashland Community Hospital also provides hyperbaric oxygen treatment. Its website, www.asante.org/services/wound-care/wound-center-hyperbaric-medicine, notes, “15 percent of wound care patients require (it) to help stop infections, repair wounds or preserve skin grafts. HBOT … saturates the patient’s blood plasma, carrying 15 to 20 times the normal amount of oxygen to the body’s tissues. As a result, the body’s natural wound healing mechanisms, which are oxygen dependent, are able to function more efficiently.”

The hospital HBOT is used only on conditions covered by Medicare, says John Reader, program director for AACH Wound Care & Hyperbaric Medicine. Getting that coverage requires extensive and expensive scientific studies.

"There isn’t that kind of funding behind hyperbaric oxygen," Reader says. "We do have a lot of anecdotal research on treatments. It may help 82 percent of patients but it’s not at that level of research.”

AACH can treat only on-label conditions, he adds. “We’re in a hospital setting and we have different guidelines than an outpatient clinic. They have more flexibility in that arena and can treat off label and still be very much within bounds. They may have to collect cash from patients for off label, then go to insurance companies and show the body of research and get it covered.

“With stroke patients, for instance, there’s a large body of research that they can benefit. But it’s not on label. A lot of those patients are on Medicare. It (coverage) is not going to happen. We can’t treat that patient at the hospital, but Monte (Stewart) could.”

At an open house last week, Daniel Mark said he is considering bringing his son to the chamber to treat an eye condition.

“It makes sense to speed up the healing,” he said, after crawling in the chamber. “I’m very happy about the possibilities. I was very comfortable in the chamber and will be able to lay beside my son and comfort him.”

Patients concerned about the confinement of the chamber can instead use an oxygen-fed plastic helmet, said Noyce, who demonstrated it to patients.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.