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MP 2.01.44 Dermatologic Applications of Phtodynamic Therapy

Medical Policy    
Original Policy Date
Last Review Status/Date
Reviewed with literature search/1:2015
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Our medical policies are designed for informational purposes only and are not an authorization, or an explanation of benefits, or a contract.  Receipt of benefits is subject to satisfaction of all terms and conditions of the coverage.  Medical technology is constantly changing, and we reserve the right to review and update our policies periodically.


PDT refers to light activation of a photosensitizer to generate highly reactive intermediaries, which ultimately cause tissue injury and necrosis. Two common photosensitizing agents are 5-aminolevulinic acid (5-ALA) and its methyl ester, methyl aminolevulinate (MAL). When applied topically, these agents pass readily through abnormal keratin overlying the lesion and accumulate preferentially in dysplastic cells. 5-ALA and MAL are metabolized by underlying cells to photosensitizing concentrations of porphyrins. Subsequent exposure to photoactivation (maximum absorption at 404 to 420 nm and 635 nm, respectively) generates reactive oxygen species that are cytotoxic, ultimately destroying the lesion. PDT can cause erythema, burning, and pain. Healing occurs within 10 to 14 days, with generally acceptable cosmetic results. PDT with topical ALA has been investigated primarily as a treatment of actinic keratoses. It has also been investigated as a treatment of other superficial dermatologic lesions, such as BD, acne vulgaris, mycoses, hidradenitis suppurativa, and superficial and nodular BCC. Potential cosmetic indications include skin rejuvenation and hair removal.

Actinic keratoses are rough, scaly, or warty premalignant growths on sun-exposed skin that are very common in older people with fair complexions, with a prevalence of greater than 80% in fair-skinned people older than 60 years of age. In some cases, actinic keratosis may progress to squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Available treatments for actinic keratoses can generally be divided into surgical and nonsurgical methods. Surgical treatments used to treat 1 or a small number of dispersed individual lesions include excision, curettage (either alone or combined with electrodessication), and laser surgery. Nonsurgical treatments include cryotherapy, topical chemotherapy (5-FU or masoprocol creams), chemexfoliation (also known as chemical peels), and dermabrasion. Topical treatments are generally used in patients with multiple lesions and the involvement of extensive areas of skin. Under some circumstances, combinations of different treatment methods may be used.

Nonmelanoma skin cancers are the most common malignancies in the white population. BCC is most often found in light-skinned people and is the most common of the cutaneous malignancies. Although BCC tumors rarely metastasize, they can be locally invasive if left untreated, leading to significant local destruction and disfigurement. The most prevalent forms of BCC are nodular BCC and superficial BCC. BD is an SCC in situ with the potential for significant lateral spread. Metastases are rare, with less than 5% of cases advancing to invasive SCC. Lesions may appear on sun-exposed or covered skin. Excision surgery is the preferred treatment for smaller nonmelanoma skin lesions and those not in problematic areas, such as the face and digits. Other established treatments include topical 5-FU, imiquimod, and cryotherapy. Poor cosmesis resulting from surgical procedures and skin irritation induced by topical agents can be significant problems.

Regulatory Status

In 1999, Levulan® Kerastick™, a topical preparation of ALA, in conjunction with illumination with the BLUU™ Blue Light Photodynamic Therapy Illuminator received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the following indication: “The Levulan Kerastick for topical solution plus blue light illumination using the BLU-U Blue Light Photodynamic Therapy Illuminator is indicated for the treatment of nonhyperkeratotic actinic keratoses of the face and scalp.” The product is applied in the physician’s office. FDA product code: MVF.

A 5-aminolevulinic acid patch technology (5-ALA Patch) is available outside of the United States through an agreement between Intendis (part of Bayer HealthCare) and Photonamic GmbH and Co. KG. The 5-ALA patch is not approved by FDA.

Another variant of PDT for skin lesions is Metvixia® and the Aktilite CL128 lamp, each of which received FDA approval in July 2004. Metvixia® (Galderma SA, Switzerland; PhotoCure ASA, Norway) consists of the topical application of MAL in contrast to ALA used in the Kerastick procedure, followed by exposure with the Aktilite CL 128 lamp, a red light source (in contrast to the blue light source in the Kerastick procedure). Broadband light sources (containing the appropriate wavelengths), intense pulsed light (IPL), (FDA product code: ONF), pulsed dye lasers (PDL), and potassium titanyl phosphate (KTP) lasers have also been used. Metvixia is indicated for the treatment of non-hyperkeratotic actinic keratoses of the face and scalp in immunocompetent patients when used in conjunction with lesion preparation (débridement using a sharp dermal curette) in the physician's office when other therapies are unacceptable or considered medically less appropriate. FDA product codes: GEX and LNK.



Photodynamic therapy may be considered medically necessary as a treatment of:

  • Nonhyperkeratotic actinic keratoses of the face and scalp.
  • Low-risk (eg superficial and nodular) basal cell skin cancer only when surgery and radiation are contraindicated.
  • Bowen disease (squamous cell carcinoma in situ) only when surgery and radiation are contraindicated.

Photodynamic therapy is considered investigational for other dermatologic applications, including, but not limited to, acne vulgaris, high-risk basal cell carcinomas, hidradenitis suppurativa and mycoses.

Photodynamic therapy as a technique of skin rejuvenation, hair removal, or other cosmetic indications is considered not medically necessary.


Policy Guidelines

Surgery or radiation is the preferred treatment for low-risk basal cell cancer and Bowen disease (see Rationale section). If photodynamic therapy is selected for these indications because of contraindications to surgery or radiation, patients and physicians need to be aware that it may have a lower cure rate in comparison with surgery or radiation.

In 2002, a CPT code was introduced to specifically describe photodynamic therapy for actinic keratoses:

96567: Photodynamic therapy by external application of light to destroy premalignant and/or malignant lesions of the skin and adjacent mucosa (eg, lip) by activation of photosensitive drug(s), each phototherapy exposure session.

While ICD-9 code 702.0 specifically describes actinic keratoses, it does not designate their location.

In 2002, a HCPCS J code was introduced to describe the 5-aminolevulinic acid:

J7308: Aminolevulinic acid HCl for topical administration, 20%, single unit dosage form (354 mg)

In 2011, a HCPCS J code was introduced for Metvixia®:

J7309: Methyl aminolevulinate (MAL) for topical administration, 16.8%, 1 gram

Photodynamic therapy typically involves 2 office visits: one to apply the topical ALA and a second visit to expose the patient to blue light. The second physician office visit, performed solely to administer blue light, should not warrant a separate Evaluation and Management CPT code. Photodynamic protocols typically involve 2 treatments spaced a week apart; more than 1 treatment series may be required.

Benefit Application
BlueCard/National Account Issues


Plans that have contract language regarding medical necessity that includes criteria regarding cost effectiveness may want to consider the relative cost effectiveness of PDT compared with other equally effective nonsurgical treatments. PDT has not been shown to be more effective for the treatment of actinic keratosis or superficial BCC than other nonsurgical treatments. Compared with cryotherapy, cosmetic outcomes and patient tolerance may be improved. PDT may result in better clearance and cosmetic outcomes in comparison with cryotherapy or topical 5-FU for the treatment of BD.



The policy was created in 2001 and was updated regularly with searches of the MEDLINE database. Most recently, the literature was reviewed through December 15, 2014. Key literature is described next and focuses on studies evaluating U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)‒approved photosensitizing agents.

Actinic Keratoses

Efficacy of Photodynamic Therapy Compared With Placebo

Several randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have been published. For example, in 2003, Pariser et al conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of 80 patients with actinic keratoses.(1) The authors reported that the complete response (CR) rate for the methyl aminolevulinate (MAL) group was 89% compared with 38% in the placebo group.

A 2009 double-blind RCT conducted in Germany by Hauschild et al evaluated photodynamic therapy (PDT) with 5-aminolevulinic acid (5-ALA) using a self-adhesive patch.(2) Eligibility criteria included Caucasian patients, age 18 years and older with skin type I-IV (pale to olive complexion) and actinic keratoses on the head and of mild or moderate grade, as defined by Cockerell (maximum diameter, 1.8 cm; interlesional distance, at least 1 cm). Patients were randomly assigned to receive 5-ALA patches containing 8 mg 5-ALA or identical placebo patches. Patches were square, measuring 4 cm2 , and patients received 3 to 8 of them, depending on the number of study lesions. The primary efficacy outcome was the
complete clinical clearance rate 12 weeks after PDT. A total of 99 of 103 randomized patients were included in the primary efficacy analysis. Complete clinical clearance rate on a per patient basis (all lesions cleared) was 62% (41/66) in the 5-ALA patch group and 6% (2/33) in the placebo patch group; there was a statistically significant difference favoring PDT.


Efficacy of PDT Compared With an Alternative Intervention

A number of published RCTs compare PDT with other therapies, and a systematic review of these studies has been published. Patel et al, in 2014, reviewed RCTs with at least 10 patients that addressed the efficacy of topical PDT compared with an alternative (ie, non-PDT) treatment of actinic keratosis.(3) A total of 13 studies with 641 participants met the review’s inclusion criteria. Studies compared PDT with cryotherapy (n=6), fluorouracil (n=2), imiquimod (n=4), and carbon dioxide laser (n=1). Seven studies used ALA and the other 6 used MAL as the PDT sensitizer. Most studies focused on lesions located on the face or scalp. None of the included studies were double-blind. In 12 of the 13 studies, primary outcome was a measure related to the clearance rate of lesions. Data from 4 RCTS comparing PDT and cryotherapy were suitable for meta-analysis. The pooled lesion response rate 3 months after treatment was significantly higher with PDT than with cryotherapy (pooled relative risk [RR], 1.14, 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.11 to 1.18). Due to heterogeneity among the interventions, other data were not pooled.

Representative RCTs are described next.

In 2006, Morton et al published an industry-sponsored, 25-center, randomized, left-right comparison of single photodynamic treatment and cryotherapy in 119 subjects with actinic keratoses on the face or scalp.(4) At 12-week follow-up, PDT resulted in a significantly higher rate of cured lesions compared with cryotherapy (86.9% vs 76.2%, respectively, cured). Lesions with a non-CR were retreated after 12 weeks; a total of 108 (14.9%) of 725 lesions received a second PDT session; 191 (26.8%) of 714 lesions required a second cryotherapy treatment. At 24 weeks, groups showed equivalent clearance (85.8% vs 82.5%, respectively). Skin discomfort was reported to be greater with PDT than with cryotherapy. Investigatorrated cosmetic outcomes showed no difference in the percentage of subjects with poor cosmetic outcomes (0.3% vs 0.5%, respectively), with more subjects rated as having excellent outcomes at 24 weeks after PDT (77.2% vs 49.7%, respectively). With PDT, 22.5% had cosmetic ratings of fair or good compared with 49.9% for cryotherapy.

In 2010, Szeimies et al in Germany reported 12-month follow-up data from a study comparing PDT using a self-adhesive patch to cryotherapy.(5) The study had the same eligibility criteria and primary outcome as the Hauschild et al study,(2) previously described. A total of 148 patients were randomly assigned to the 5-ALA patch group, 49 to a placebo group, and 149 to a cryotherapy group. The study used a test of noninferiority of PDT versus cryosurgery. Fourteen patients who dropped out were excluded from the analysis comparing PDT and cryotherapy, leaving 283 patients. The rate of complete clearance of all lesions was 67% (86/129) in the 5-ALA group, 52% (66/126) in the cryosurgery group, and 12% (5/43) in the placebo group. Clearance rate was significantly higher in the 5-ALA patch group than either the cryosurgery group or placebo patch group. Results were similar in the analysis of clearance rates on a per lesion basis. The 360 patients with at least 1 lesion cleared at 12 weeks were followed for an additional 9 months; 316 completed the final visit 1 year after treatment. Overall clearance rate on a lesion basis was still statistically higher in the 5-ALA patch group compared with placebo (in both studies) and compared with cryosurgery (in the second study). Thirty-two percent of patients in the 5-ALA group from the first study and 50% of patients in the 5-ALA group from the second study were still completely free from lesions. The corresponding figure in the cryosurgery group was 37%. In the safety analysis, there were high rates of local reaction to patch application and cryotherapy at the time of treatment, but no serious adverse effects due to study intervention were documented. PDT patches used in the German studies have not been cleared by FDA for use in the United States.

A 2012 randomized pilot study from Spain compared PDT using MAL alone, imiquimod alone, and the combination of the 2 treatments.(6) Patients with  nonhyperkeratonic actinic keratoses on the face and/or scalp were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: (1) 1 session of PDT with MAL (n=40); (2) self-administered
imiquimod 5% cream for 4 weeks (n=33); or (3) PDT, as above, followed by 4 weeks of imiquimod cream (n=32). Follow-up occurred 1 month after PDT (group 1) or 1 month after the end of treatment with imiquimod (groups 2 and 3). The primary outcome measure, complete clinical response, was defined as the total absence of actinic keratoses by visual evaluation and palpation. Complete clinical response was achieved by 4 (10%) of patients in group 1, 9 (27%) of patients in group 2, and 12 (37.5%) of patients in group 3. There was a statistically significantly higher rate of CR in the PDT plus imiquimod group compared with PDT only (p=0.004). A limitation of the study was that the PDT-only group was followed for a shorter amount of time, which could at least partially explain the lower rate of CR.

Efficacy of Different PDT Protocols

Several RCTs have compared different approaches to applying PDT in the treatment of actinic keratoses.(7-10) No clear evidence of superiority of 1 approach over another emerges from this body of evidence, and some of the alternative approaches, eg, daylight PDT, are not FDA-cleared.

Section Summary

Evidence from multiple RCTs has found that PDT improves the net health outcome in patients with nonhyperkeratotic actinic keratoses on the face or scalp compared with placebo or other active interventions. There is insufficient evidence that any PTD protocol is superior to any other protocol.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

A 2007 Cochrane review evaluated surgical, destructive (including PDT), and chemical interventions for basal cell carcinoma (BCC).(11) The authors concluded that surgery and radiotherapy appeared to be the most effective treatments, with the best results being obtained with surgery. In addition, they stated that cosmetic outcomes appear to be good with PDT, but additional data with long-term follow-up are needed. The Cochrane review did not distinguish among BCC subtypes.

More recently, in 2014, Wang et al published a meta-analysis of RCTs on PDT for treating BCC, both superficial and nodular.(12) To be included in the systematic review, studies needed to include adults with 1 or more primary BCCs, randomize participants to PDT versus placebo or another treatment and report the complete clearance rate, recurrence rate, cosmetic outcomes, and/or adverse events. A total of 8 RCTs with 1583 patients, published between 2001 and 2013, met inclusion criteria. Three trials included patients with superficial BCC, 3 included patients with nodular BCC, and 1 included patients with both types of low-risk BCC. Four trials compared PDT and surgery, 2 compared PDT and cryotherapy, 1 compared PDT and pharmacologic treatment, and 1 was placebo controlled.

In meta-analysis of 7 studies, the estimated probability of complete clearance after treatment was similar in the PDT and non-PDT groups (RR=0.97; 95% CI, 0.88 to 1.06). In subgroup analyses by treatment type, PDT was associated with a significantly higher clearance rate only when compared with placebo. In a pooled subgroup analyses by tumor type, results were similar except that the upper CI for nodular BCC just crossed 1 and was thus not statistically significant, and the upper CI for superficial BCC was just below 1 and thus was statistically significant. For nodular BCC, the RR (95% CI) was 0.93 (0.85 to 1.01) and for superficial BCC, the RR (95% CI) was 0.93 (0.88 to 0.98). Only 1 study on superficial BCC contributed data to this subgroup analysis.

When data from 6 studies were pooled, there was not a statistically significant difference in the recurrence rate at 1 year in the PDT and non-PDT groups. Surgery was associated with a significantly lower rate of recurrence compared with PDT, and there was not a significant difference in recurrence rates when PDT was compared with cryotherapy and pharmacologic therapy. In meta-analyses of cosmetic outcomes at 1 year, there was a significantly higher probability of a good to excellent outcome
with PDT compared with surgery (RR=1.87; 95% CI, 1.54 to 2.26) or cryotherapy (RR=1.51; 95% CI, 1.30 to 1.76).

A 2012 systematic review by Roozeboom et al focused only on superficial BCC and included both randomized and nonrandomized trials.(13) A total of 16 studies were identified that evaluated PDT for treating BCC; 6 studies were RCTs. There was significant heterogeneity among studies ( =94%, p<0.001). A pooled estimate of CR after treatment with PDT in 13 studies (PDT arms only) was 79% (95% CI, 71% to 87%). In 3 studies that compared illumination regimens, only 1 arm was included, and in
2 studies that compared PDT agents, both arms were included.

Representative RCTs are described next.

An industry-sponsored multicenter RCT was published in 2008 by Szeimies et al.(14) This trial compared MAL-PDT with surgery for small (8-20 mm) superficial BCC in 196 patients. At 3 months after treatment, 92% of lesions treated with MAL-PDT showed clinical response, compared with 99% of lesions treated with surgery (per protocol analysis). At 12-month follow-up, no lesions had recurred in the surgery group, and 9% of lesions had recurred with MAL-PDT. Approximately 10% of patients discontinued MAL-PDT due to an incomplete response or adverse event, as compared with 5% of patients in the surgery group. Cosmetic outcomes were rated by the investigators as good to excellent in 94% of lesions treated with MAL-PDT in comparison with 60% following surgery.

In 2007, Rhodes et al published 5-year follow-up of an industry-sponsored multicenter randomized study comparing MAL-PDT with surgery for nodular BCC.(15,16) A total of 101 adults with previously untreated nodular BCC were randomized to receive MAL therapy or surgery. At 3 months, CR rates did not differ between the 2 groups; however, at 12 months, CR rate had fallen from 91% to 83% in the MAL-PDT group, while in the surgery group, the CR rate had fallen from 98% to 96%. Of 97 patients in the per protocol population, 66 (68%) were available for 5-year follow-up; 16 (32%) discontinued in the MAL-PDT group due to treatment failure or adverse events versus 6 (13%) in the surgery group. A time-to-event analysis of lesion response over time estimated a sustained lesion response rate of 76% for MAL-PDT and 96% for excision surgery. Cosmetic outcomes were rated as good to excellent in 87% of the MAL-PDT patients and 54% of the surgery patients.

An observational study published in 2011 by Lindberg-Larsen provides additional data on recurrence rates after treatment with PDT.(17) The study included 90 patients with 157 lesions (n=111 superficial BCC, n=40 nodular BCC, and n=6 unknown) who were initially treated with MAL-PDT. Each lesion was treated twice, with 1 week between treatments. The authors did not report the initial rate of clinical response. Recurrence was defined as reappearance of a histologically verified BCC in a previously affected area. Estimated recurrence rate was 11% at 6 months, 16% at 12 months, and 19% at 24 months. There was a significantly higher rate of recurrence for nodular BCC than superficial BCC (eg, at 12 months, recurrence rates were 28% and 13%, respectively, p=0.008). Although this study found higher rates of recurrence for
nodular versus superficial BCC, the study was not randomized, and thus, there may be confounding factors. For example, the authors noted that nodular BCCs were more frequently located on patients with fewer tumors and that patients with more tumors had a lower risk of recurrence. In addition, the number of nodular BCCs was relatively small and findings may not be robust.

Section Summary

Systematic reviews of RCTs have found that PDT does not appear to be as effective as surgery for superficial and nodular BCC. These systematic reviews have not found statistically significant differences in clinical response rates with PDT compared with cryotherapy for BCC, which suggests, but does not conclusively demonstrate, similar efficacy. Cosmetic outcomes have been better after PDT compared with surgery and cryotherapy. In the small number of trials available, PDT was more effective than placebo.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous Cell Carcinoma In Situ (Bowen Disease)

Bath-Hextall et al published a Cochrane review of interventions for cutaneous Bowen disease (BD) in 2013.(18) Investigators identified 7 RCTs evaluating PDT; 4 of these compared 2 PDT protocols, 1 compared PDT with cryotherapy, 1 compared PDT with topical 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), and 1 compared PDT with both PDT and 5-FU. The authors did not pool study results.

The study with the largest sample size (N=225) was a 3-arm trial published in 2006 by Morton et al.(19) This was a multicenter study conducted in 11 European countries. A total of 225 patients were randomized to receive MAL PDT, cryotherapy, or 5-FU for treatment of BD. Unblinded assessment of lesion clearance found PDT to be noninferior to cryotherapy and 5-FU (93%, 86%, 83%, respectively) at 3 months and superior to cryotherapy and 5-FU (80%, 67%, 69%, respectively) at 12 months. Cosmetic outcome at 3 months was rated higher for PDT than the standard nonsurgical treatments by both investigators and blinded evaluators, with investigators rating cosmetic outcome as good or excellent in 94% of patients treated with MAL-PDT, 66% of patients treated with cryotherapy, and 76% of those treated with 5-FU.

Another representative trial comparing PDT with another intervention in patients with BD was published by Salim et al in 2003.(20) Forty patients were randomly assigned to undergo either topical 5-FU or MAL therapy Twenty-nine (88%) of 33 lesions in the PDT group cleared completely, as compared with 22 (67%) of 33 lesions in the 5-FU group. In the 5-FU group, severe eczematous reactions developed around 7 lesions, ulceration in 3, and erosions in 2. No such reactions were noted in the PDT group.

Section Summary

RCTs have found that PDT has similar or greater efficacy compared with cryotherapy and 5-FU for patients with BD. Additionally, adverse effects/cosmetic outcomes appeared to be better after PDT. There is a lack of RCTs comparing PDT with surgery or radiotherapy in patients with BD; as a result, conclusions cannot be drawn about PDT compared with these other treatments.

Nonmetastatic Invasive Squamous Cell Carcinoma

In 2013, Lansbury et al published a systematic review of observational studies evaluating interventions for nonmetastatic cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).(21)
Investigators identified 14 prospective studies evaluating PDT. Sample sizes ranged from 4 to 71 patients, and only 3 studies included more than 25 patients. These studies evaluated a variety of different PDT protocols. There was only 1 comparative study, and this study compared 2 different PDT regimens. In meta-analysis, a mean of 72% of lesions had a CR to treatment (95% CI, 61.5% to 81.4%; =71%). Eight studies addressed recurrence rates in patients who were initial responders. In meta-analysis, pooled odds of recurrence was 26.4% (95% CI, 12.3% to 43.7%; =72%).

Section Summary

No RCTs evaluating PDT for treatment of nonmetastatic invasive SCC were found. There are a number of small, uncontrolled studies, and these represent insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about the efficacy and safety of PDT for patients with this condition.


Several RCTs and non-RCTs have been published. A randomized, single-blind, split-faced trial was published in 2010 by Orringer et al in the United States.(22) The trial included 44 patients with facial acne. A randomly selected side of the face received the intervention (combined treatment with topical 5-ALA and pulsed dye laser) and the other side of the face remained untreated. Patients received up to 3 treatments at intervals of approximately 2 weeks. Twenty-nine patients (66%) completed the 16-week study. For most outcomes, there were no statistically significant differences between treated and untreated sides of the face. This included change from baseline to 16 weeks in mean number of inflammatory papules, pustules, cysts, closed comedones, or open comedones. There was a significantly greater reduction in erythematous macules on the treated compared with the untreated side of the face (a mean reduction of 5.9 and 2.5, respectively; p=0.04). In addition, improvement in mean Leed acne severity score was significantly greater on the treated side of the face (-1.07) compared with the untreated side (-0.52) (p=0.001). There were few adverse effects, and they tended to be mild. A limitation of the study was the high dropout rate.

In 2012, Shaaban et al in Egypt published a nonrandomized split-faced study of 30 patients with inflammatory and nodulocystic acne.(23) In each patient, the right side was treated with a monthly session of ALA-PDT plus intense pulsed-light (IPL) treatment, and the left side was treated with IPL only. From baseline to 1-month follow-up, mean (SD) count of facial acne lesions decreased from 9.55 (1.1) to 2.1 (1.68) in the combined treatment group, and from 9.8 (4.8) to 5.01 (1.7) in the IPL-only group. The difference in lesion count between groups was statistically significant. Limitations of the study were that it was not randomized and did not include a group that received PDT as the sole intervention.

In 2013, Mei et al in China published a parallel group RCT of 41 patients with moderate-to-severe facial acne.(24) The trial evaluated the additional value of ALA PDT in patients treated with IPL. Twenty-one patients were randomized to 4 weeks of treatment with IPL plus PDT, and 20 patients were randomized to IPL plus placebo PDT. Mean reduction in both inflammatory and noninflammatory lesions was significantly greater in the IPL plus PDT group compared with the IPL-only group at the 4-, 8-, and 12-week follow-ups. For example, in the IPL plus PDT group, the mean (SD) number of noninflammatory acne lesions decreased from 31.3 (7.1) at baseline to 14.0 (6.2) at 12-week follow-up. In the IPL-only group, the mean (SD) number of noninflammatory lesions decreased from 28.2 (4.1) at baseline to 18.6 (3.1) at 12 weeks (p<0.05). An improvement of 75% to 100% in all lesions was attained by 13 patients (62%) in the IPL plus PDT group and by 3 patients (15%) in the IPL-only group. Both treatments were well tolerated, and no patient withdrew from the trial due to adverse effects of treatment. The trial did not evaluate the efficacy of PDT in the absence of IPL therapy.

In some studies, a higher rate of adverse events with PDT has been reported. For example, a 2006 study by Wiegell et al in Denmark evaluated patients 12 weeks after MAL-PDT (n=21) or a control group (n=15).(25) There was a 68% reduction from baseline in inflammatory lesions in the treatment group and no change in the control group (p=0.023). However, all patients experienced moderate to severe pain after treatment and 7 (33%) of 21 in the treatment group did not receive the second treatment due to pain.

Section Summary

There are several small (ie, <50 patients) randomized and nonrandomized studies evaluating PDT for treatment of acne. These studies tended to find that PDT was at least as effective as a control condition. Some studies have reported higher rates of adverse effects associated with PTD therapy, but others have not. A limitation of this body of evidence is that there are few studies evaluating PDT as the sole intervention; therefore, more data are needed that isolate the impact of PDT before conclusions can be drawn about the efficacy of this therapy for treating acne.

Other Dermatologic Indications

No controlled studies using FDA-approved photosensitizing agents for PDT in other dermatologic indications were identified. Only case series were identified. Most, such as 2 studies of hidradenitis suppurativa(26,27) and 1 on PDT for patients with interdigital mycoses,(28) included fewer than 15 patients each. In 2011, Xiao et al in China published a large retrospective case series.(29) A total of 642 patients with port-wine stains were treated with PDT; 507 were included in the study, and the rest were excluded because they had had previous treatment for their lesions or were lost to follow-up. After treatment, 26 patients (5.1%) were considered to have complete clearing, 48 (9.5%) had significant (<75% to <100%) clearing, and 77 (15.2%) had moderate (<50% to <75%) clearing. This single uncontrolled study is insufficient to draw conclusions about the effect of PDT on health outcomes in patients with port-wine stains.

Section Summary

There is insufficient evidence that PDT improves the net health outcome in patients with dermatologic conditions other than those discussed in previous sections of the document.

Summary of Evidence

There is evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that photodynamic therapy (PDT) is an effective treatment for selected patients with actinic keratoses of the face and scalp compared with placebo or cryotherapy. The evidence to date suggests that PDT is less effective than surgery and radiotherapy and of similar efficacy to cryotherapy for treating low-risk basal cell carcinoma (BCC) (eg, superficial and nodular). Moreover, the evidence suggests that cosmetic outcomes are better after PDT
compared with surgery and cryotherapy. Evidence from randomized controlled trials RCTs suggests that, in patients with Bowen disease (BD), PDT has similar or higher efficacy compared with cryotherapy and 5-fluorouacil, and better cosmetic outcomes. Thus, PDT may be considered medically necessary for treating non-hypertonic actinic keratoses of the face and scalp, and for treating low-risk BCC and BD when surgery and radiation are contraindicated.

There is insufficient evidence that PDT improves the net health outcome for other dermatologic conditions compared with accepted treatments, and therefore they are considered investigational.

Practice Guidelines and Position Statements

The v1.2015 clinical practice guideline on basal cell skin cancers from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) states: “Since cure rates may be lower, superficial therapies should be reserved for those patients where surgery or radiation is contraindicated or impractical. Superficial therapies include topical treatment with 5-FU or imiquimod, photodynamic therapy (PDT) and cryotherapy.” Moreover, the guideline describes BCC histologic subtypes that have low-risk of recurrence as nodular,
superficial, and other nonaggressive growth patterns, such as keratotic, infundibulocystic, and fibroepithelioma of Pinkus. For patients with low-risk BCCs, the guideline states, “…topical therapies such as 5-FU (5-fluorouracil), imiquimod, PDT (eg, porfimer sodium or topical amino levulinic acid) or vigorous cryotherapy may be considered even though the cure rate may be lower.”(30)

In 2008, the British Association of Dermatologists published guidelines containing the following statement on PDT:

Multicentre randomized controlled studies now demonstrate high efficacy of topical photodynamic therapy (PDT) for actinic keratoses, Bowen's disease (BD) and superficial basal cell carcinoma (BCC), and efficacy in thin nodular BCC, while confirming the superiority of cosmetic outcome over standard therapies. Long-term follow-up studies are also now available, indicating that PDT has recurrence rates equivalent to other standard therapies in BD and superficial BCC, but with lower sustained efficacy than surgery in nodular BCC. In contrast, current evidence does not support the use of topical PDT for squamous cell carcinoma.... There is an accumulating evidence base for the use of PDT in acne, while detailed study of an optimized protocol is still required.(31)

The International Society for Photodynamic Therapy in Dermatology published consensus-based guidelines on the use of PDT for nonmelanoma skin cancer in 2005. Based on both efficacy and cosmetic outcome, they recommended PDT as a first-line therapy for actinic keratosis. The guideline authors considered ALA to not have sufficient tissue penetration for nodular BCC. Based on 2 randomized controlled and 3 open-label studies, it was concluded that MAL-PDT can be effective for nodular BCC lesions less than 2 mm in depth, if debulked. The guideline recommended PDT for superficial BCC as “a viable alternative when surgery would be inappropriate or the patient or physician wishes to maintain normal skin appearance.” The report concluded that PDT is at least as effective as cryotherapy or 5-FU for Bowen disease but that there is insufficient evidence to support the routine use of topical PDT for squamous cell carcinoma.(32)

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendations
Not applicable.

Medicare National Coverage
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services coverage policy on treatment of actinic keratosis dated November 26, 2001, notes:

Various options exist on treating actinic keratosis. Clinicians should select an appropriate treatment based on the patient’s history, the lesion’s characteristics, and the patient’s preference for specific treatment…. Less commonly performed treatments for actinic keratosis include dermabrasion, excision, chemical peels, laser therapy, and photodynamic therapy.... Medicare covers the destruction of actinic keratosis without restrictions based on lesion or patient characteristics.(33)




  1. Pariser DM, Lowe NJ, Stewart DM, et al. Photodynamic therapy with topical methyl aminolevulinate for actinic keratosis: results of a prospective randomized multicenter trial. J Am Acad Dermatol. Feb 2003;48(2):227-232.PMID 12582393
  2. Hauschild A, Stockfleth E, Popp G, et al. Optimization of photodynamic therapy with a novel self-adhesive 5-aminolaevulinic acid patch: results of two randomized controlled phase III studies. Br J Dermatol. May 2009;160(5):1066-1074. PMID 19222455
  3. Patel G, Armstrong AW, Eisen DB. Efficacy of Photodynamic Therapy vs Other Interventions in Randomized Clinical Trials for the Treatment of Actinic Keratoses: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Dermatol. Aug 27 2014. PMID 25162181
  4. Morton C, Campbell S, Gupta G, et al. Intraindividual, right-left comparison of topical methyl aminolaevulinatephotodynamic therapy and cryotherapy in subjects with actinic keratoses: a multicentre, randomized controlled study. Br J Dermatol. Nov 2006;155(5):1029-1036. PMID 17034536
  5. Szeimies RM, Stockfleth E, Popp G, et al. Long-term follow-up of photodynamic therapy with a self-adhesive 5- aminolaevulinic acid patch: 12 months data. Br J Dermatol. Feb 1 2010;162(2):410-414. PMID 19804593
  6. Serra-Guillen C, Nagore E, Hueso L, et al. A randomized pilot comparative study of topical methyl aminolevulinate photodynamic therapy versus imiquimod 5% versus sequential application of both therapies in immunocompetent patients with actinic keratosis: clinical and histologic outcomes. J Am Acad Dermatol. Apr 2012;66(4):e131-137. PMID 22226430
  7. Zane C, Facchinetti E, Rossi MT, et al. A randomized clinical trial of photodynamic therapy with methyl aminolaevulinate vs. diclofenac 3% plus hyaluronic acid gel for the treatment of multiple actinic keratoses of the face and scalp. Br J Dermatol. May 2014;170(5):1143-1150. PMID 24506666
  8. Giehl KA, Kriz M, Grahovac M, et al. A controlled trial of photodynamic therapy of actinic keratosis comparing different red light sources. Eur J Dermatol. May-Jun 2014;24(3):335-341. PMID 24876164
  9. Neittaanmaki-Perttu N, Karppinen TT, Gronroos M, et al. Daylight photodynamic therapy for actinic keratoses: a randomized double-blinded nonsponsored prospective study comparing 5-aminolaevulinic acid nanoemulsion (BF-200) with methyl-5-aminolaevulinate. Br J Dermatol. Aug 11 2014. PMID 25109244
  10. Rubel DM, Spelman L, Murrell DF, et al. Daylight photodynamic therapy with methyl aminolevulinate cream as a convenient, similarly effective, nearly painless alternative to conventional photodynamic therapy in actinic keratosis treatment: a randomized controlled trial. Br J Dermatol. May 24 2014. PMID 24861492
  11. Bath-Hextall FJ, Perkins W, Bong J, et al. Interventions for basal cell carcinoma of the skin. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007(1):CD003412. PMID 17253489
  12. Wang H, Xu Y, Shi J, et al. Photodynamic therapy in the treatment of basal cell carcinoma: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. Nov 5 2014. PMID 25377432
  13. Roozeboom MH, Arits AH, Nelemans PJ, et al. Overall treatment success after treatment of primary superficial basal cell carcinoma: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized and nonrandomized trials. Br J Dermatol. Oct 2012;167(4):733-756. PMID 22612571
  14. Szeimies RM, Ibbotson S, Murrell DF, et al. A clinical study comparing methyl aminolevulinate photodynamic therapy and surgery in small superficial basal cell carcinoma (8-20 mm), with a 12-month follow-up. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. Nov 2008;22(11):1302-1311. PMID 18624836
  15. Rhodes LE, de Rie M, Enstrom Y, et al. Photodynamic therapy using topical methyl aminolevulinate vs surgery for nodular basal cell carcinoma: results of a multicenter randomized prospective trial. Arch Dermatol. Jan 2004;140(1):17-23. PMID 14732655
  16. Rhodes LE, de Rie MA, Leifsdottir R, et al. Five-year follow-up of a randomized, prospective trial of topical methyl aminolevulinate photodynamic therapy vs surgery for nodular basal cell carcinoma. Arch Dermatol. Sep 2007;143(9):1131-1136. PMID 17875873
  17. Lindberg-Larsen R, Solvsten H, Kragballe K. Evaluation of recurrence after photodynamic therapy with topical methylaminolaevulinate for 157 basal cell carcinomas in 90 patients. Acta Derm Venereol. Mar 2012;92(2):144-147. PMID 21918794
  18. Bath-Hextall FJ, Matin RN, Wilkinson D, et al. Interventions for cutaneous Bowen's disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;6:CD007281. PMID 23794286
  19. Morton C, Horn M, Leman J, et al. Comparison of topical methyl aminolevulinate photodynamic therapy with cryotherapy or Fluorouracil for treatment of squamous cell carcinoma in situ: Results of a multicenter randomized trial. Arch Dermatol. Jun 2006;142(6):729-735. PMID 16785375
  20. Salim A, Leman JA, McColl JH, et al. Randomized comparison of photodynamic therapy with topical 5-fluorouracil in Bowen's disease. Br J Dermatol. Mar 2003;148(3):539-543. PMID 12653747
  21. Lansbury L, Bath-Hextall F, Perkins W, et al. Interventions for non-metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the skin: systematic review and pooled analysis of observational studies. BMJ. 2013;347:f6153. PMID 24191270
  22. Orringer JS, Sachs DL, Bailey E, et al. Photodynamic therapy for acne vulgaris: a randomized, controlled, splitface clinical trial of topical aminolevulinic acid and pulsed dye laser therapy. J Cosmet Dermatol. Mar 2010;9(1):28-34. PMID 20367670
  23. Shaaban D, Abdel-Samad Z, El-Khalawany M. Photodynamic therapy with intralesional 5-aminolevulinic acid and intense pulsed light versus intense pulsed light alone in the treatment of acne vulgaris: a comparative study. Dermatol Ther. Jan-Feb 2012;25(1):86-91. PMID 22591502
  24. Mei X, Shi W, Piao Y. Effectiveness of photodynamic therapy with topical 5-aminolevulinic acid and intense pulsed light in Chinese acne vulgaris patients. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. Apr 2013;29(2):90-96. PMID 23458393
  25. Wiegell SR, Wulf HC. Photodynamic therapy of acne vulgaris using methyl aminolaevulinate: a blinded, randomized, controlled trial. Br J Dermatol. May 2006;154(5):969-976. PMID 16634903
  26. Gold M, Bridges TM, Bradshaw VL, et al. ALA-PDT and blue light therapy for hidradenitis suppurativa. J Drugs Dermatol. Jan-Feb 2004;3(1 Suppl):S32-35. PMID 14964759
  27. Schweiger ES, Riddle CC, Aires DJ. Treatment of hidradenitis suppurativa by photodynamic therapy with aminolevulinic acid: preliminary results. J Drugs Dermatol. Apr 2011;10(4):381-386. PMID 21455548
  28. Calzavara-Pinton PG, Venturini M, Capezzera R, et al. Photodynamic therapy of interdigital mycoses of the feet with topical application of 5-aminolevulinic acid. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. Jun 2004;20(3):144-147. PMID 15144392
  29. Xiao Q, Li Q, Yuan KH, et al. Photodynamic therapy of port-wine stains: long-term efficacy and complication in Chinese patients. J Dermatol. Dec 2011;38(12):1146-1152. PMID 22032688
  30. National Comprehensive Cancer Network Practice Guidelines in Oncology Version 1.2015. Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. Accessed November, 2014.
  31. Morton CA, McKenna KE, Rhodes LE, et al. Guidelines for topical photodynamic therapy: update. Br J Dermatol. Dec 2008;159(6):1245-1266. PMID 18945319
  32. Braathen LR, Szeimies RM, Basset-Seguin N, et al. Guidelines on the use of photodynamic therapy for nonmelanoma skin cancer: an international consensus. International Society for Photodynamic Therapy in Dermatology, 2005. J Am Acad Dermatol. Jan 2007;56(1):125-143. PMID 17190630
  33. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. National Coverage Determination (NCD) for Treatment of Actinic Keratosis (250.4). Accessed November, 2014.




CPT  96567 Photodynamic therapy by external application of light to destroy premalignant and/or malignant lesions of the skin and adjacent mucosa (e.g., lip) by activation of photosensitive drug(s), each phototherapy exposure session
ICD-9 Procedure     
ICD-9 Diagnosis  702.0 Actinic keratosis (code does not indicate location)
  173.0-173.9 Other malignant neoplasm of skin code range
  232.0-232.9 Carcinoma in situ of skin code range (includes Bowen disease)
HCPCS  J7308 Aminolevulinic hydrochloric acid for topical administration, 20%, single unit dosage form (354 mg)
  J7309 Methyl aminolevulinate (MAL) for topical administration, 16.8%, 1 gram
ICD-10-CM (effective 10/1/15) L57.0 Actinic keratosis
  C44.0-C44.9 Other malignant neoplasm of skin code range
  D04.0-D04.9 Carcinoma in situ of skin code range
ICD-10-PCS (effective 10/1/15)   ICD-10-PCS codes are only used for inpatient services. There are no specific ICD-10-PCS codes for this therapy.
Extracorporeal therapies, physiological systems, phototherapy skin, codes for single and multiple
Type of Service  Medicine
Place of Service  Physician 





Policy History


Date Action Reason
11/20/01 Add to Medicine section New policy
4/29/03 Replace policy Policy updated; policy statement unchanged
04/16/04 Replace policy

Policy revised with literature review update for the period October 1, 2001, to February 2004; policy statement changed to include Metvix therapy (investigational due to lack of FDA approval), also added a statement regarding cosmetic indications for photodynamic therapy. Description and Rationale sections expanded to include discussion of Metvix.

04/01/05 Replace policy Literature review update for the period of 2004 through February 2005; policy statement on Metvix therapy changed to may be considered medically necessary. Additional indications of acne vulgaris, mycoses, and hidradenitis suppurativa added to investigational policy statement for Metvix. Added acne and mycoses as an investigational indication for aminolevulinic acid.
07/20/06 Replace policy Replace policy Literature review update; reference number 13 added. Policy statement unchanged.
08/02/07 Replace policy Replace policy Literature review update and expanded discussion of nonmelanoma skin cancers; references 14-21 added. Policy statements revised; may be medically necessary for superficial basal cell carcinoma or Bowen disease when surgery or radiation is contraindicated. Drug name of Metvix updated to current Metvixia trade name. Title change - “Treatment of Actinic Keratoses and Other Skin Lesions” replaced by “Dermatologic Applications.”
08/14/08 Replace policy Replace policy Literature review update through June 2008; references reordered;references 17, 19, 22, and 24 added; policy statements unchanged
01/14/10 Replace policy Replace policy Literature review update through October 2009; references 24-29 added; policy statements unchanged.
04/08/10 Replace policy -correction only Sentence added to Policy Guidelines regarding using HCPCS code J3490 for Metvixia.
01/13/11 Replace policy Replace policy Literature review update through November 2010; References 28-31 added; policy statements unchanged. New HCPCS code for Metvixia added.
1/12/12 Replace policy Replace policy Literature review update through December 15, 2011. Rationale extensively rewritten. References 13, 19, and 21 added; other references renumbered or removed. Policy statements unchanged.
1/10/13 Replace policy Replace policy Literature update through November 2012. References 6, 8, 20, and 25 added; other references renumbered or removed. Policy statements unchanged.
1/09/14 Replace policy Replace policy Literature update through December 2, 2013. References 6, 13, 17, 20, and 23 added; other references renumbered or removed. Policy statements unchanged.
1/15/15 Replace policy Replace policy Policy updated with literature review through December 15, 2014; references 3, 7-10, and 12 added and reference 30 updated. In medically necessary statement, superficial basal cell carcinoma changed to low-risk (ie superficial or nodular) basal cell carcinoma. In investigational statement, non-superficial basal cell carcinoma changed to high-risk basal cell carcinoma.