NEW @ THCB PRESS: Surviving Workplace Wellness. Spring 2014. Al Lewis and Vik Khanna. e-book edition. # INNOVATION: PCORI APP Challenge

Malpractice

Walgreens has been ordered to pay $1.44 million in a lawsuit brought against it for a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) by one of its pharmacist employees.  While this may not sound like a big deal, this case represents only the second time HIPAA has been successfully used this way in court and it could have serious repercussions on the health care system.

The story begins when a Walgreens pharmacist looked up the medical records of her husband’s ex-girlfriend, whom she suspected gave her husband an STD. Apparently she found what she was looking for and told her husband about it, who then sent a text message to his ex and informed her that he knew all about her results.

The ex did not appreciate this, and told the Walgreens pharmacy about what happened.  At some point after that, the pharmacist accessed the ex’s medical records again, and eventually the ex filed a lawsuit against Walgreens, claiming it was responsible for the HIPAA violation because it failed to properly educate and supervise its employee.

Walgreens argued what the pharmacist did fell outside of her job duties and therefore it was not responsible for the breach.  The judge and jury disagreed, and the jury decided Walgreens was responsible for 80% of the damages owed the plaintiff (so I guess that means the total judgement for the plaintiff was $1.8 million). Walgreens has already said it will appeal.

As I said above, it may not sound like a big deal, but it potentially is.

Although HIPAA has a mechanism by which health care providers can be subject to federal civil and criminal penalties for violations, conventional legal wisdom says HIPAA does not allow for a “private cause of action”, meaning a private individual cannot sue a health care provider for breaching their medical privacy.

Or at least that’s how HIPAA used to be interpreted, before Neal Eggeson, the enterprising young attorney who successfully argued the only two cases in which HIPAA has been used in this fashion, came along.

Continue reading “A New Way to Sue Health Care Professionals Using HIPAA?”

Share on Twitter

One of US President Barack Obama’s key health advisers has just published a review in the aftermath of the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal. Don Berwick’s review is both thoughtful and reflective but one of his key recommendations – to create criminal sanctions against health staff – will not make the NHS safer for patients.

Many patients, particularly elderly ones, suffered unnecessary indignities and avoidable harm at Mid Staffordshire.

The Francis report into the crisis concluded that patients were routinely neglected by a health trust more preoccupied with cutting costs and meeting targets rather than its responsibility to provide safe care. Patients’ calls for help to use the bathroom were ignored and some were left lying in soiled sheeting or sitting on commodes for hours. Events and failings there will probably go down in history as the blackest and bleakest moment for the NHS.

When the report was published in February, the government committed to appointing a advisory group of patients to consider the various accounts of what happened and the recommendations made by Robert Francis and others. The idea was that they would distill for the government and the NHS what lessons should be learned and what changes needed to be made.

Don Berwick, who worked on the long fought for Obamacare provisions in the US, is director and co-founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Boston. He was called in by the government to reflect on the Francis report and on patient safety.

Berwick’s review makes ten recommendations including that sufficient staff are available to meet the NHS’s needs now and in the future – staff should be well-supported and able to ensure safe care at all times; quality and safety sciences and practices should be a part of the initial preparation and lifelong education of all health care professionals, including managers and executives; and leaders should create and support learning and subsequently change, at scale, within the NHS.

But most controversial is his final recommendation:

We support responsive regulation of organizations, with a hierarchy of responses. Recourse to criminal sanctions should be extremely rare, and should function primarily as a deterrent to willful or reckless neglect or mistreatment.

Berwick proposes the government creates a new general offence of “willful or reckless neglect”, applicable both to organisations and individuals. Organizational sanctions might involve removing leaders and disqualifying them from future leadership roles, public reprimand of the organization and, in extreme cases, financial sanctions – but only where that will not compromise patient care.

Continue reading “Criminal Charges for Providers Won’t Fix the NHS, Dr. Berwick”

Share on Twitter

Similar to many other states, Oklahoma has a statute prescribing that suits alleging medical malpractice must be verified by an affidavit from a qualified medical expert. Suits unaccompanied by a proper affidavit must be stricken out. This statute is part of what I call – and commend – as a procedural tort reform: it allows courts to get rid of unmeritorious suits against doctors and hospitals early in the process.

The statute, however, recently became a dead letter after being pronounced unconstitutional by Oklahoma’s Supreme Court for the second time in a row (Wall v. Marouk, — P.3d —-, 2013 WL 2407160 (Okla. 2013)). Evidently, this Court does not view merit affidavits as favorably as I do.  Let’s see why.

The previous version of Oklahoma’s affidavit-of-merit requirement, limited to medical malpractice suits, was found unconstitutional as a “special law” and “monetary barrier to the access to courts” (Zeier v. Zimmer, Inc., 152 P. 3d 861 (Okla. 2006)). The current version extended to all suits asserting professional negligence, which makes it less “special.” This version was nonetheless challenged by a patient whose suit against a physician was not accompanied by a merit affidavit from a qualified expert.

The plaintiff alleged that the physician caused him permanent injury during surgery (loss of feeling in right fingers) by negligently cutting the median nerve in his right arm.  The trial court ruled that the plaintiff must submit the required affidavit within twenty days or face dismissal.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court voided this requirement for being as unconstitutional as the previous one.  The Court ruled that the requirement arbitrarily separates suits that allege professional negligence from other civil actions, in which plaintiffs do not bear the costly burden of obtaining expert review prior to proceeding. This disparate treatment, explained the Court, discriminates against victims of professional misconduct.

Continue reading “The Merit of Merit Affidavits in Malpractice Lawsuits”

Share on Twitter

Connecticut’s Appellate Court recently ruled that hospitals and doctors can successfully sue their patients’ attorneys for filing a vexatious malpractice suit. The Court also ruled that the trial judge’s decision that the patient’s suit was vexatious will often create an estoppel against the attorney. The attorney will consequently be precluded from contesting that decision. The only issue will then be the amount of damages—double or treble—that the attorney and her firm will be obligated to pay the hospital or the doctor.  See Charlotte Hungerford Hospital v. Creed — A.3d —-, 2013 WL 3378824 (Conn. App. 2013).

Whether this is going to be a trend in our medical malpractice law remains to be seen. In the meantime, I provide the details of that important decision.

Attorneys representing the family of a psychiatric patient, who committed suicide, filed a malpractice suit against a hospital and some of its doctors. They alleged that the defendants prematurely discharged the patient from the hospital’s emergency room while she was still experiencing a severe mental health crisis. Allegedly, this untreated crisis was the cause of the suicide that the patient committed four days later.

The suit was supported by an opinion letter from a registered nurse (!!). Under Connecticut law, as in many other states, the supporting opinion letter must come from “a similar health care provider.” The attorneys thus should have retained a psychiatrist, rather than a nurse, as an expert supporting the suit. Their failure to do so rendered the suit defective and the trial judge properly struck it out.

Continue reading “A New Trend? Hospital Successfully Sues its Patient’s Attorneys for Filing a Vexatious Malpractice Suit”

Share on Twitter


I am very fortunate to have never been sued. That is not necessarily because of my amazing ability as a physician. I always practiced in Veterans Affairs medical centers, where my status as a federal employee meant I would not get sued by my patients. I also had an incredibly appreciative patient population.

But I know that most of my physician peers have been sued, successfully or unsuccessfully, at least once in their careers. And I know that these lawsuits take an emotional toll upon them. To make matters worse, malpractice lawsuits have a nagging tendency to drag themselves out for months upon months. Consider this figure, from a study led by an economist at the RAND Corporation. It shows that malpractice claims related to temporary injuries take a median of a year to resolve, while those dealing with fatalities or permanent injuries take a median of 18 months.

Continue reading “Malpractice Claims Feel Endless Because…They Are.”

Share on Twitter

In his new book, Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care, Johns Hopkins surgeon Marty Makary promises a “powerful, no-nonsense, nonpartisan prescription for reforming our broken health care system.” And he partly delivers, with an insider’s and relatively unvarnished view of many of the flaws in modern hospitals. Underlying these problems, he believes, is an utter lack of transparency, the sunshine that could disinfect the stink.

The thesis is important, the honesty is admirable, and the timing seems right. Yet I found the book disappointing, sometimes maddeningly so. My hopes were high, and my letdown was large. If your political leanings are like mine, think Obama and the first debate.

Makary hits the ground running, with the memorable tales of two surgeons he encountered during his training: the charming but utterly incompetent Dr. Westchester (known as HODAD, for “Hands of Death and Destruction”) and the misanthropic “Raptor,” a technical virtuoso who was a horse’s ass. Of course, all the clinicians at their hospital knew which of these doctors they would see if they needed surgery, but none of the patients did. (Of HODAD, Makary writes, “His patients absolutely worshipped him… They had no way of connecting their extended hospitalizations, excessive surgery time, or preventable complications with the bungling, amateurish, borderline malpractice moves we on the staff all witnessed.”)

This is compelling stuff, and through stories like these Makary introduces several themes that echo throughout the book:

1) There are lots of bad apples out there.

2) Patients have no way of knowing who these bad apples are.

3) Clinicians do know, but are too intimidated to speak up.

4) If patients simply had more data, particularly the results of patient safety culture surveys, things would get much better.

Continue reading ““Unaccountable” An Important, Courageous and Deeply Flawed Book”

Share on Twitter

Medical malpractice in America remains a thorny and contentious issue, made no less so by its virtual exclusion from the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) governing healthcare reform in America.

Which is why I was glad to see the former head of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, now with the liberal Center for American Progress,  cite it as his second top priority for gaining control of our out-sized medical spending – an implicit criticism of its omission from Obamacare.

Although  speaking in the context of criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) plan to offer vouchers so Medicare enrollees could purchase private health insurance, his comments about the need to address malpractice reform are a departure from the liberal talking points on Obamacare. Here’s what he had to say…

Former Obama Budget Head Challenges Paul Ryan To Demonstrate How His Budget Would Lower Health Costs

“Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposals to control health care spending by slashing the federal government’s contribution to Medicare and Medicaid and shifting that spending on to future retirees or the states, has dominated Washington’s conversation about entitlement reform. But…a group of health care economists and former Obama administration officials laid out an alternative approach that could achieve health savings by encouraging providers to deliver care more efficiently…

“‘Mr. Ryan has had too much running room to go out with proposals that neither will reduce overall health care costs nor will help individual beneficiaries simply because there has not been enough of an alternative put forward by those who believe that we really need to focus on the incentives and information for providers…If I had to pick out two or three things to do immediately, I would pick the accelerated (trend) towards bundled payments and non fee-for-service payment…

Continue reading “Medical Malpractice – What Obamacare Misses”

Share on Twitter

I was struck by the recent story in the New York Times about a young boy who was misdiagnosed, and lost his life.

The boy, Rory Staunton, was a healthy, active 12-year old, until one day he ended up in the middle of our time-strapped, broken healthcare system.  He was treated by good, well-intentioned doctors, at a leading medical center, but something went terribly wrong.  What started out as a minor cut suffered in a basketball game turned into a major infection that took his life.

Yet nowhere along Rory’s journey, from boy with a bellyache on Thursday to gravely ill boy on Friday night, did anyone act on strong indications that he might be fighting for his life. Critical information gathered by his family doctor and during his first visit to NYU Langone was not used, was not at hand or was not viewed as important when decisions were made about his care, records show.

Story’s like Rory’s happen far too often, and in far too familiar ways.  Scientific studies show that patients are misdiagnosed between 15% and 44% of the time.  Researchers have found that the combination of fragmented medical information and not enough time between doctor and patient are the leading causes of this problem.  And yet, much of America is still unaware how often misdiagnosis happens.  Lost in all the politics of healthcare is a recognition that, at its core, healthcare must be about making sure each and every patient gets the right care.

Continue reading “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way …”

Share on Twitter

Health care costs too much in the United States. One key problem is gold-plating of services driven by physicians’ fears of lawsuit for failure to do everything possible for patients. A notable example of such overutilization is increasingly routine ordering of advanced imaging or other tests. Reliable, evidence-based clinical guidelines promise to address low-value utilization by authoritatively stating standards of good care in advance.

Some thought leaders among Democrats seek to use guidelines to side step the routinized political battles over malpractice reform. Republicans have been saying that defensiveness and other problems justify caps and other limits on medical liability. Belittling defensiveness as a problem, Democrats have defended and promoted liability as an incentive for good care.

Defensiveness is a problem, acknowledge proponents of guidelines to reform liability. But it can be fixed simply by legislating that adherence to reliable guidelines constitutes a “safe harbor” against lawsuits for failure to do more. Safe harbors would remove the motivation for defensiveness and also any need to accept Republicans’ caps and other limits. Given the political stalemate in Washington, the idea is worth thinking through.

Good guidelines are a good idea, especially to improve quality of care, which is their main policy driver. And, because guidelines hold promise for cutting wasteful defensiveness, they have superficial appeal as a liability reform. However, practical feasibility limits the reach of safe harbors, as explained in a recent policy brief from The Urban Institute for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Continue reading “Clinical Practice Guidelines as “Safe Harbors” against Malpractice Claims”

Share on Twitter

“I’d be lookin’ to sue you.”

I’m sorry, what?? That is what I heard from the mother of one of my patients. I was evaluating a high school athlete who had recurrent stingers (nerve injury that affects an upper limb, usually resolves with time) and a possible episode of transient quadriparesis (affecting all limbs this time). I wasn’t on the sidelines for these injuries, so I had to go on the reports given to me by the athlete and the school’s athletic trainer. However, with that information, I did not want to clear this player to return to football until I could be certain he didn’t have any cervical stenosis or any other abnormality that might put him at risk for permanent damage if he suffered another neck injury.

I told the athlete and his mother that I needed to get an MRI of his cervical spine (neck) in order to determine this. The athlete was understandably upset with my decision, but his mother supported my decision to proceed with caution. She explained to me that if her son played again, sustained another injury, and something “bad” happened, she would be more than happy to take legal action against me. Fantastic.

First of all, I can’t say that I would blame her for being angry (at the very least) if I screwed up. But to tell me in my office, to my face, that she’s already thinking about suing me? I found that ridiculous. I must be in the minority, however. If you Google “how to sue a doctor,” an abundance of information follows. There’s an “ehow” on the subject, and even CNN offers an opinion.

Continue reading “You Want to Sue Me?”

Share on Twitter

MASTHEAD


Matthew Holt
Founder & Publisher

John Irvine
Executive Editor

Jonathan Halvorson
Editor

Alex Epstein
Director of Digital Media

Munia Mitra, MD
Chief Medical Officer

Vikram Khanna
Editor-At-Large, Wellness

Maithri Vangala
Associate Editor

Michael Millenson
Contributing Editor










About Us | Media Guide | E-mail | 415.562.7957 | Support THCB
© THCB 2005-2013
WRITE FOR US

We're looking for bloggers. Send us your posts.

If you've had a recent experience with the U.S. health care system, either for good or bad, that you want the world to know about, tell us.

Have a good health care story you think we should know about? Send story ideas and tips to editor@thehealthcareblog.com.

ADVERTISE

Want to reach an insider audience of healthcare insiders and industry observers? THCB reaches 500,000 movers and shakers. Find out about advertising options here.

Questions on reprints, permissions and syndication to ad_sales@thehealthcareblog.com.

THCB CLASSIFIEDS

Reach a super targeted healthcare audience with your text ad. Target physicians, health plan execs, health IT and other groups with your message.
ad_sales@thehealthcareblog.com
WORK FOR US

Interested in the intersection of healthcare, technology and business? We're looking for talented interns to work in our San Francisco offices. Get in touch.

Wordpress guru? We're looking for a part time web-developer to help take THCB to the next level. Drop us a line.

BLOGROLL

If you'd like to be considered for our Blogroll, drop us an email and we'll take a look. While you're at it, why not add us to yours?

SUPPORT
Let us know about a glitch or a technical problem.

Report spam or abuse here.

Sign up for the THCB Reader here.
Log in - Powered by WordPress.