A federal whistleblower lawsuit filed against one of Boston’s premier hospitals, Massachusetts General Hospital, alleges that orthopedic surgeons would perform surgeries on more than one patient at a time, leaving the patient under anesthesia for more than an hour, longer than it was medically necessary or safe to do so.
The lawsuit brought by former MGH employee and anesthesiologist, Dr. Lisa Wollman, alleges that the surgeons were encouraged to do as many surgeries as possible by hospital administration. She said hospital policy gave the doctors financial incentives to do more procedures, and they never told patients they would be going back and forth between operating rooms.
“This often meant an unwitting patient was left fully anesthetized — unconscious, paralyzed, intubated, dependent on a ventilator to breathe — for longer than medically necessary, often in the care of trainees, without the backup of a properly qualified surgeon, despite legal requirements,’’ said the suit filed Wednesday in US District Court in Boston.
There’s been relatively little research into the safety of simultaneous surgery, though a University of Virginia researcher found no increase in complications in operations that overlapped by up to 45 minutes. The American College of Surgeons last year issued its first-ever guidelines saying the practice is broadly permissible, within limits, but that “the patient needs to know” whenever a doctor runs more than one operating room at a time.
Wollman’s whistleblower lawsuit is specific in terms of its allegations. Wollman listed 16 dates from 2011 to 2013 when five orthopedic surgeons performed at least two operations simultaneously for hours. In every case, the suit said, patients lay under anesthesia longer than was warranted, increasing the risk of complications and inflating anesthesia charges.
Wollman’s lead attorney, Reuben Guttman of Washington, D.C., argues that the doctors violated rules for two government health insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid, which require surgeons to be present for all “critical portions” of an operation in order to get paid. If surgeons weren’t present and billed the insurers without making their role clear, it could constitute billing fraud, though the rule has seldom been enforced.
“I am pursuing this case because my ethical obligation is to patients — past, current, and future — who are unknowingly scheduled for concurrent surgeries,” said Wollman, who worked at Mass. General, Harvard’s largest teaching hospital, for more than 20 years.
Good for Dr. Wollman. It’s high time medical professionals call out unethical and unsafe medical procedures designed to maximize profits at the expense and disregard of patients.