Archive for the ‘surgical procedures’ Category

Why early settlement is a win-win for all

Friday, May 20th, 2011

There is an old adage in the law that cases settle on the courthouse steps. There is a reason for that. When the parties are actually walking into court to try their case, they seem to suddenly recognize that there are significant risks to going to trial, and that there is serious money at stake. When you go to trial, only one side can win. The other side goes home a loser. Faced with such a stark outcome, both sides tend to become more reasonable in their assessment of their case and more willing to talk settlement. After all, despite all the years of experience that trial attorneys amass, no one can ever predict what a jury is going to do in any specific case. As one mediator I know likes to tell the litigants, going to court is like going to Vegas:  you roll the dice and you take your chances. So often times, the closer a case gets to the trial date the more motivated the two sides are to talk settlement. But is there a better way?

A couple of recent cases made me start to think about settlements and how they come about. (If you missed it, Brian Nash wrote an excellent piece on the frustrations of mediation and trying to settle cases). I’ve recently handled two cases that illustrate how settlements work and how two cases can go down dramatically different routes to ultimately get to the same place. Both of these cases are subject to confidentiality agreements so I can’t divulge the names of the parties or the settlement amounts, but they were both seven-figure cases with significant injury.

In the first case, the patient alleged that her doctor failed to timely diagnose stomach cancer over a period of several years. By the time the patient was properly evaluated by another physician, the cancer had progressed to the point that there was virtually no chance of a cure, and the young woman was likely going to die in the next few years. In the second case, the patient alleged that he suffered serious neurological complications (motor and nerve dysfunction in his arms and legs) as a result of post-operative complications that were not treated quickly enough. In both cases, a lawsuit was filed in court.  At that point, the two cases diverged.

Case Example #1 – Getting it done early

In the cancer case, before any depositions had taken place, the defense attorney called and asked if we might be able to talk about resolving the case. That’s always a great call to get as a plaintiff’s lawyer because it means there is a good chance that you will be able to get a nice result for your client, which is always the ultimate goal. Within a matter of weeks, we had reached an agreeable number and the case was over.

Case Example #2 – Grinding it out to the courthouse steps

In the second case, there was no early talk of resolution. The case proceeded through the normal course of litigation, which in the District of Columbia usually means about eighteen months of discovery, depositions, expert meetings, etc. Twenty-five experts were hired to review records and testify. Twenty-seven depositions ended up being taken. The case got all the way up to the Thursday before trial was scheduled to start on the following Monday morning. At that point, the parties finally reached agreement on a number and the case was settled.

Why the difference in approach?

So we have two cases, both with significant injury and both with questionable care. One case settled right away, and one dragged on for almost two years before settling. Is there a simple reason why? Not that I’ve been able to figure out. After years of doing this, I, like every other attorney, get a gut feeling as to what cases are worth, which ones will likely settle, which ones will go to trial. But it’s still a gut feeling; there’s no science involved.

It’s usually a combination of factors – the quality of the medical care, the severity of the injury, the likeability of the plaintiff and the defendant (more important than most people realize), the specific jurisdiction you’re in, etc. On top of these factors you have a myriad of psychological reactions that pop-up in lawsuits and there is no predicting those. Sometimes people get entrenched in fighting for no other reason than to fight. Some people get a number in their head for what a case is worth and don’t want to budge. So even though I can’t sit here and explain why certain cases settle early and some settle late, I do want to talk about the value of early settlements to all sides.

Common Sense and good economics say “get it done early”

It is easy to see why early resolution of cases benefits everyone, and it comes down to the costs of litigation. In today’s world, it can easily cost $75,000 to $100,000 (if not more in many instances) just in expenses to take a case to trial; it can easily be much higher in complex cases. (I know of one attorney who spent $300,000 on a case that he took to trial; he lost the case). These expenses consist primarily of expert fees paid to doctors to review records and testify. Expert doctors routinely charge at least $400 per hour and oftentimes more for their time. For trial testimony, doctors usually charge around $5,000 per day (some substantially more). If it runs into two days, that’s $10,000 just for one witness. It’s not unusual to spend tens of thousands of dollars for expert fees alone.

On top of that there is the cost of court reporters for each deposition, copying charges, obtaining medical records, long-distance calls, travel expenses, etc. Going through litigation is an expensive undertaking, and the longer the case goes on the more expensive it is. On the plaintiff side, all of those expenses are usually advanced by the attorney (in jurisdictions where this is permitted), but they all get paid back by the client at the end of the case (assuming the plaintiff wins; if there is no recovery, the plaintiff’s attorney “eats” those costs). So every dollar spent on litigation comes straight out of the client’s portion of the recovery.

On the defense side, insurers and self-insured institutions (like hospitals) have those same expenses, but on top of that, they also have to pay legal fees to their attorneys. Defense attorneys charge by the hour for everything they do on a file from reviewing records to meeting with clients to talking to experts to taking depositions. The complexity of medical negligence cases means long hours of work on each file, generating substantial legal fees. Those fees get paid to the defense lawyer whether the case is won, lost or settled at the last minute. The longer the litigation lasts, the higher the legal fees.

Of course it always costs money to investigate a case. There is no avoiding that.  Records need to be obtained and reviewed. Experts need to be retained for an initial opinion. But instead of spending $75,000 or $100,000 (or more) on a case, it may cost only several thousand dollars to work-up a case to get it ready to file – that is, to be in a position where early resolution can be discussed with the defendant. If a case can be settled early on, all of those thousands of dollars that would have gone to litigation costs go straight to the client. That is a huge benefit to the client.

The defendant benefits too. No hospital or insurance company wants to spend money needlessly. Early resolution means that the defendant doesn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars in expenses and tens of thousands more in legal fees. The only way it makes sense to spend that money is if, at the end of the day, the “defendant” (read insurer/hospital) believes it can either win the case or settle it for less down the road. But here’s the thing – a case can usually settle early on for less than the case would be worth had the case gotten closer to trial. This isn’t always true, of course, but as a general rule, a good case does not become less valuable over time.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys don’t undersell their cases to get an early settlement, but in practical terms, attorneys and clients are usually willing to consider some discount because they know that an early settlement is to their mutual benefit.The plaintiff gets a guaranteed financial payment now rather than waiting eighteen months for a trial and then a possible appeal that may drag the case out another two years. In that circumstance, the plaintiff is usually willing to take a little less money now because it is certain. It’s the age-old question: would you rather have X amount of money now, or wait eighteen months for the chance of getting more? For most plaintiffs, it’s an easy answer. Also the defense can pay less on a case than it would have ended up paying anyway and save thousands in expenses and legal fees by doing so. It’s a win-win for all parties.

Just do the math!

The big secret with early settlements (and which can sometimes be difficult to explain to a client) is that even though an early settlement might be for less than what a jury might award, the client can actually put more money in his or her pocket with a lower settlement amount. Again, we’re back to the issue of litigation costs. If a firm spends $10,000 to investigate a case and get it ready to file rather than $100,000 to take a case to trial, that is an extra $90,000 that goes straight to the client. Also, some law firms will have a contingent fee agreement in which the fee is higher (usually from 1/3 to 40%) when the case goes to trial, which serves to compensate for the additional time,  risk and expense of going to trial. When you consider the higher legal fees and the increased costs of litigation that have to be paid back, it can actually take a substantially larger jury verdict to put the same amount of money in the client’s pocket as he or she would get with a smaller early resolution.

Some cases may just need to be tried

I don’t mean to imply that every case that gets filed should be settled early. Far from it. Some lawyers undoubtedly file cases that are simply without merit and should be defended vigorously. Other cases – while they may be defensible – fall into a middle category where the care may not be the best but the plaintiff has problems with his/her case too. Some cases can be difficult to evaluate without further investigation and discovery to gauge the strength of the case. In those cases, it is entirely appropriate to proceed with litigation – even on a somewhat limited scale through discovery. No doubt there are instances where insurance companies do need to protect the interest of their doctors, and sometimes that means vigorously defending a case all the way through trial.

Some cases, however, – the cases where the medical care is truly egregious and the damages are clear – need to be looked at early on to see if the two sides can be reasonable and find some middle ground. If a case is going to ultimately settle (and believe me, experienced attorneys and claims adjusters can usually identify those cases early on), it makes sense to talk sooner rather than later. It requires compromise on everyone’s part, but the value to both sides is so great that it makes sense to talk early and get it done.

What has been your experience?

I’d be curious to know the experience of our readers. Has anyone been involved in a lawsuit that settled? Did it resolve early on or did it stretch out for years? Do you think the time involved had any impact on the amount of the settlement? Any tips or tricks you might suggest? Let’s hear from you – maybe we can all learn how to get these cases resolved earlier and stop wasting time, resources and money.

You may also want to read these related posts:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

A View from the Shady Side – The Defense Perspective

Every bad outcome does NOT a malpractice case make! Some practical advice

 

Medical Second Opinions: An Under-utilized Option for Patients

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Today’s medical world is vast with various technologies, treatments and options.  So, if a patient is diagnosed with a medical condition, and doctor A recommends treatment A, what keeps the patient from seeking a second opinion? This is an interesting phenomenon.  After performing intake summaries and client interviews for quite a while now, it still amazes me how many people have bad outcomes from surgery simply because they never requested a second opinion. Second opinions are not simply reserved for surgery, though; cancer treatment options, medical therapies for chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, chiropractic care of chronic back or neck pain are some other conditions that, in my mind, scream for a second opinion!

Having practiced medicine for 13 years, working with physicians from all specialties, I can honestly say that doctors are not gods. They are human beings, no different than you or me, and human beings are prone to prejudice and errors. Granted, physicians go through a lot of education and training to perform their daily duties, but location of training, timing of training and educational mentors play a huge role in shaping the decision-making process of these humans.

Inherent limitations that can affect physician recommendations

For example, the latest technology for prostatectomy has been the DaVinci procedure, using minimally invasive robotic technology to surgically remove the prostate.  Operation of the robotics involves manipulation of “joysticks”, much like video-gaming. No offense, but if your particular urologist is 60 years of age or older, what are the chances that this particular surgeon is as adept with these skills or technology as a 30-year-old urologist?  Special training is required for use of these robotics, and not all hospitals even have the technology available. Therefore, one’s choices are automatically limited, and a minimally-invasive robotics-assisted procedure may not even be an option! A second opinion by another urologist at a different facility might be able to provide that option. A similar situation would be the use of gamma knife surgery for removal of brain tumors; it is not always an option available based on the facility or the neurosurgeon providing the consultation.

Can recommendations be limited by specialty?

Another example has to do with medical specialty affiliation. If one is trained as a surgeon, he/she focuses on the technical removal or repair of abnormal body parts. If one is trained in radiation-oncology, the focus would be the various radiation technologies available for treatment of disease. If one is a medical oncologist, chemotherapy protocols for the particular neoplastic condition would be the focus.  So who ties all of this together?  First of all, is the tumor even operable? Is the patient a good candidate for surgery? Should one try radiation first to shrink the tumor, then follow it with an operation? Is chemotherapy the way to go, but which regimen of drugs is really appropriate? These are very technical and complex questions. Should one leave the ultimate recommendation up to one specialty physician?

Suggested approach to the problem

For me, it would be a little more comforting to get the same overall recommendation from two independent physicians. What if the opinions differ?  A third opinion? – or, simply focus on the discrepancies with direct questioning of the two physicians and find out the rationale for the recommendation being made. You do not know how many times I have heard, “I trusted my doctor.” I ask you, if your car was making a rattling noise but seemed to be running okay and a mechanic told you a new transmission was necessary at the cost of $1800, would you get a second opinion?

Don’t let fear or reprisal get in your way

One of the main reasons for fear in seeking second opinions is anticipated disapproval and potential retaliation by the first physician or fear of a change in the patient-physician relationship.  I pose to you the following:  if a physician has done his/her research regarding the condition and is confident is his/her recommendation, then he/she should not fear the opinion of a peer. If that opinion differs, it should be reviewed for accuracy and appropriateness because it might just be a viable option not previously considered. If the physician is “offed” by the patient’s search for a second opinion, that physician thinks way too highly of himself/herself; keep in mind that this is about the patient who has a condition that requires treatment, not the physician’s integrity or ego. It is my firm opinion that physicians should be proud of those patients who advocate so strongly for themselves and seek to be educated about their condition.  Education leads to a better understanding of the disease process, better expectation of the “road ahead,” and better patient compliance with medical therapies. Retaliation is prohibited by the medical code of ethics; if there is a retaliatory action, the state’s Medical Board should be notified and prompted to investigate.

Beware of the on-line second opinion approach!!!

Recently, multiple facilities have offered a “second opinion service” via the internet. A patient submits his/her medical condition along with various lab studies and other diagnostic imaging (CT scans, x-rays, MRI scans, etc.) for review over the internet; an opinion is provided based on these facts!  What this really doesn’t take into consideration is the patient!  Patients are people – human beings with emotions, physical limitations, families (or not), previous histories and other underlying health conditions. One of the things I was taught in PA school was to treat the patient and not the numbers!  Not all patients are surgical candidates.  Not all patients can emotionally or physically tolerate some of the chemotherapy protocols. Someone might look good on paper with great blood parameters, vital signs, etc., but in person, one’s assessment changes dramatically.  These virtual second opinions may have their place in certain situations, but I generally have to question the validity of such an assessment.

A “real-life” story

I leave you with a quick summary of a case:  Mr. B was a 40-something, physically fit male professional, who loved to work out and exercise. He developed some mechanical back pain for which he sought treatment. An MRI scan revealed an incidental finding of small spinal cord glioma in the low back. Clinically, there was no evidence to support that this incidental finding was in any way related to Mr. B’s pain. He sought the advice of a neurosurgeon, who immediately wanted to operate. Well, if research had been done, these particular tumors are 99% benign, very slow-growing and can often be monitored for 10 to 20 years before surgery might even be necessary.

Mr. B followed the advice of the surgeon and underwent a resection of this small tumor. The surgery required resection of the S1 nerve root, which affects sensation in the genital region and anus; Mr B was now impotent and had problems with bowel movements in addition to a chronic burning sensation in his genital region. A second opinion might well have saved Mr. B a lot of pain, permanent erectile dysfunction and money required to undergo alternative methods for conception. He’ll never know now.

Have you or someone you know gotten second opinions before making a decision about an important medical procedure? What’s your approach? Have you ever received different opinions about how to treat a condition? How did you resolve this situation? Any tips for others?

Image: Wellsphere.com

Update: After posting Theresa Neumann’s piece this morning, I came across a somewhat related post on KevinMD.com entitled Marcus Welby and the relentless growth of specialization. The author, Jan Henderson, PhD, raises some very interesting thoughts about what I would call the “over-specialization” of medicine. She provides the following quote of Dr. Welby from very first episode of this TV show of years gone by, which – to me – supports one of the concerns raised by Theresa in her blawg:

… I hope some of you will go into general practice. For if you don’t, where will a patient turn who doesn’t know that he has an orthopedic problem? Or a neurological problem? Or a psychiatric problem? Or a nutritional problem? But who only knows that, in lay terms, he feels lousy.

Just some food for thought you might enjoy.

Brian Nash (editor of “Eye Opener”)

Week in Review (April 23 – 29, 2011): The Eye Opener Health and Law Blog

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

From the Editor:

Last week was a busy but productive week for our firm’s blawgers – 6 posts – and we actually practiced law a lot! My personal thanks to our writers for taking the time to post some important pieces on health, safety, medicine and law. To our readers, my continued and sincere thanks as well. While it’s great to pull-out our soapbox and write about stuff we do and are passionate about, it’s incredibly rewarding to have you, our readers, take the time to read what we write. To those who left comments, a special thanks. We really enjoy interacting with you!

Now on to the business at hand. What did we write about that you may find interesting? Here you go.

My Pet Peeves About the New Age Mediation Process

Having been inspired by a fellow blawger from New York, Scott Greenfield, who chided legal bloggers (thus the name “blawgers”) for simply rehashing news and not taking a stand on issues, I wrote a piece called Mediation of Lawsuits: The 5 Top Things that Tick Me Off!

Having recently been through a number of mediations that were enough to pull your hair out because of the silliness that people engage in when they claim they are mediating to get cases resolved, I decided that it was time to take a stand and post a personal rant. While perhaps best understood by lawyers, claims adjusters and mediators, this blawg was not intended just for them. I’ve seen what impact foolish approaches and conduct by the participants to mediation can have on my clients, the injured parties. It was time to sound-off; so that’s what I did. I once again invite anyone who has been a party to a lawsuit mediation to do your own personal sound-off and tell us what it was like for you. It’s your turn to tell us just how much you enjoyed the process and what can be done to make it better. Read the horror story told in our Comments section by one of our Canada readers when she went through a domestic mediation process. Share your thoughts and stories as well.

Health Care: Who’s “Voiceless” When It Comes to Being Heard on Capitol Hill

Guess I had too much time on my hands at the beginning of this week (not really!). I couldn’t help but be inspired by a piece Jason Penn had done last week about how families were so adversely affected by the budget cuts that were made when the government shutdown was looming a few weeks ago. As I was going through my Google Reader early this past week, I came across an Op Ed by a doctor, who was complaining or at least suggesting that the president and congress need to hear more what doctors had to say about health care reform. Having read that, Jason’s piece jumped into my mind and the result was my blawg entitled Health Reform: What voice does the patient have in the debate.

The post brings to light the amount of money being spent by the healthcare industry in its lobbying efforts on health care reform. ObamaCare‘s raison d’etre is explored as well since it is ironic, if not sad, how the story behind all this money, lobbying and legislation seems to have been lost in the rhetoric. More affordable, better and available health care for our citizens? Then why were the most needy among us the victims of back room wheeling and dealing when the time came for budget cuts to save the federal government from closing its doors? I ask the question – who’s voice is being heard – but more important – who’s is not?

FDA approves use of “meningitis drug,” Menactra, for younger children

Hopefully you’ll never need to use this information, but if you do, Jason Penn reported on a condition – meningitis – that can affect not only adults and older children, but infants and toddlers as well. Meningitis is generally defined as an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Prior to a recent change in position by the FDA, there wasn’t a vaccine available for children under the age of 2. Now, with the FDA’s recent approval, Menactra can be used to vaccinate children from the age of 9 months to age 2.

In addition to this news release, Jason tells parents about the signs and symptoms they should be aware of to spot this condition.

The classic symptoms of meningitis are a high fever, headache and stiff neck. Detection of these symptoms, particularly headache and stiff neck are certainly difficult to detect in infants and toddlers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infants with meningitis may appear slow or inactive, have vomiting, be irritable, or be feeding poorly. Seizures are also a possibility.

To learn more about this important topic, read his piece Meningitis & Your Baby: Three Things to Think About.

Why are children still dying because of venetian blinds?

Sarah Keogh wrote what I believe is a very important piece for parents, grandparents or anyone who has a baby in the house. Years ago we all heard about the horror of parents finding their babies dead from strangulation when their necks became entangled in venetian blinds. Years have passed since those stories made the front page. Well, an update on just how well manufacturers and parents have been doing to avoid such tragedies was recently posted in The New York Times.

In her blawg entitled Window Blinds: Why are Children Still Dying, Sarah tells us the sad truth that these deaths and injuries still continue in our country. Find out what you as a caregiver of a young child need to realize about this product. Maybe you’ve put the cords up high and out-of-reach for your baby. Maybe you’ve taken other steps to avoid such a nightmarish event ever happening in your home and in your life. Unfortunately, many who have done so have still suffered this tragedy. Why? What is being done by manufacturers and the government to prevent these injuries and deaths ? Read Sarah’s piece for the answers and some practical advice you can take to make your home safer for your child.

Hospitals Reporting Methods for “Adverse Events”

We all know by now that if you want to look good to the public, all you have to do is “play with the numbers.” Well, it seems like hospitals have a penchant for doing just that. One of the key “numbers” that advocates of patient health and safety look at is how many “adverse events” take place in any given hospital. An “adverse event,” as you may already know, is – simply put – any harm to a patient as a result of medical care.

In his post this past week, Jason Penn compares some interesting adverse event bookkeeping by hospitals throughout our country. His blawg, The New Enron? Are Hospitals Cooking the Books?, brings to light serious flaws in the way that our medical institutions “count” the number of so-called adverse events taking place within their walls. His research for this piece reveals…

[M]edical errors occur 10 times more than previously thought.Maybe that wasn’t hard hitting enough. Let me try again. How about this: mistakes occur in one out of every three hospital admissions!

Frankly, that strikes me as an astounding and very concerning number. Are the numbers being reported reflecting this? The simple answer is no. Why not? Read Jason’s post and see what reporting systems are in place – or not in place as the case may be. We all remember Enron. Is this the medical version of “making the numbers look good” when they simply are not!

Surgeons and Booze – an Obvious Bad Combination – Who’s Protecting Us?

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that surgeons should not be under the influence when we as patients are “under the knife” What’s not so obvious is just how prevalent this may be in the operating rooms of our country (and throughout the world).

Wondering what the studies have been done by the medical profession to examine this problem? Have any idea what regulations are in place by hospitals to guard against the problem of “hungover surgeons”?

Wonder no more. Jon Stefanuca’s blog this past week, Hungover Surgeons: Watch Out! There’s Nothing Between You and Their Scalpel!,will tell you all you need to know. Jon queries: “Should hospitals regulate for patient safety?” What do you think? Share your comments.

A “Sneak Peak” of the week ahead

Some more good advice is on the way for parents of special needs children. We all know about what a wonderful aide dogs are for the blind. Mike Sanders will share what he’s learned how these canine wonders are being used for kids in need. Suffering from asthma or know someone who is? Jon Stefanuca will be sharing with  you some valuable information on this topic next week. A number of our clients or their now-deceased family members have suffered from this condition. Jon will share a story or two (without revealing protected confidential information) to bring to light just how this medical condition needs to be better recognized and treated by our health care providers before its too late. We all know what a difficult job nursing can be. That being said, Sarah Keogh will be telling us about some very concerning “trends” that are coming to light in this wonderful profession. Stay tuned for this important piece.

We’ll start next week off with a new blawg by our in-house medical specialist, Theresa Neumann. Her post on how important it can be to get a second opinion before you sign-up for a surgery, procedure or test is sitting in the queue just waiting to hit the pages of The Eye Opener – Views and Opinions from the Nash Community.

One Final Note: I wrote in last weekend’s Week In Review that we intended to post a new White Paper by Marian Hogan on a very important topic relating to Patient Controlled Analgesia (PCA). It didn’t happen – because of “my Bad.” I fouled-up and sent the wrong draft of Marian’ s piece to our graphic designer. He did a wonderful job – as usual – of getting it ready – it just wasn’t the right version. The problem is fixed, but my mistake will delay the posting of this important White Paper for another week. Public apology: Sorry, Marian! We’ll make it right soon.


Robot Anesthesiologists?

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

robotic intubationFor anyone contemplating serious surgery, it can be a scary endeavor. From going through it myself and talking to others, I know that the main fear we have going into it is that the surgeon will make a mistake during the surgery, or that we will develop serious complications such as a hematoma, infection, etc. that leads to death or paralysis. While these are very real risks of many forms of surgery, there is another aspect of surgical procedures that gets less attention from patients – the anesthesiologist. While it may get little notice from patients, anesthesiology is a highly complex field of medicine in which doctors (and certified nurse anesthetists) train for years to be able to do it well. This post will focus on just one aspect of anesthesiology known as intubation, and a new development in robotics that may improve the procedure.

What is intubation?

At its most basic, intubation is the process by which the anesthesiologist places a thin plastic tube into the patient’s windpipe to maintain an airway or to facilitate mechanical ventilation. While this is done in a variety of serious medical situations, it is almost always done during major surgery when the patient is under general anesthesia. During such surgery, the patient is rendered unconscious and is unable to breathe on his or her own. Therefore, the anesthesiologist has to essentially breathe for the patient during the surgery, either using a ventilator or sometimes compressing a bag that replaces natural breathing. The process of intubation allows this artificial breathing to take place. Because intubation itself is a painful procedure (remember – a tube is being inserted far down your throat), the patient is usually given paralytic drugs (drugs to induce paralysis) before intubation. This is a key point we’ll come back to later.

Risks of Intubation

While it may sound as simple as sliding a tube down the throat, intubation carries its own risks separate and apart from the risks of anesthesia itself (risks from anesthesia can include death, paralysis, brain damage and a whole host of other less serious injuries). With intubation, there are minor risks such as chipped teeth, lacerations in the gums and sore throat. However, there are many more serious risks as well, including perforation of the trachea, mistakenly placing the tube down the esophagus (a more common occurrence than you might think), aspiration of stomach contents, vocal cord injury, decreased oxygen and elevated carbon dioxide, and nerve injury. Intubation is a serious procedure that requires a high degree of skill and training to do it well and safely.

What if the tube does not get placed properly?

Inability to secure the airway is a major problem in intubation. To understand why, you have to remember that before the tube is placed, the anesthesiologist paralyzes you with drugs. Therefore, before the tube is placed, you stop breathing on your own. It is then critical that the tube be placed quickly and accurately to ensure that you don’t suffer from a lack of oxygen (or ventilation – the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide). So what happens when the anesthesiologist has trouble getting the tube in? It just so happens that I have some personal familiarity with that scenario.

A few years ago I had back surgery. The surgery itself was not complex as far as spine surgeries go (it always amazes me how surgeons are able to describe cutting open your back and operating on your spine as casually as they might describe changing a light bulb). It essentially consisted of trimming off a small piece of disc that was pressing on my spinal cord and causing pain to radiate down into my leg and foot.  I was in and out of the hospital the same day, but of course I was under general anesthesia so I had to spend a couple of hours in the Post Anesthesia Recovery Room (PACU) to make sure that I was not suffering from any ill effects of the anesthesia. While waking up, and still groggy, the anesthesiologist walked up to me and said, “I just want to let you know – you were really hard to intubate. If you ever have surgery again, be sure to tell your doctor that you’re really hard to intubate.”

I asked the doctor what he meant by that. He told me that because of the anatomy of my mouth and throat, he had had a really difficult time getting the tube into my airway. Keep in mind, the tube was placed down my throat after I was given drugs to paralyze me. Even in my post-anesthesia addled state, I knew enough to ask the obvious question – what would have happened if he couldn’t have gotten the tube down in time? He was casual in his response. “Oh, we would have given you drugs to wake you back up.” How comforting. My next thought was, “Maybe you could have checked my anatomy out before you gave me paralyzing drugs.” I didn’t ask that because I am sure they did check me pre-operatively.  That is standard procedure before giving anesthesia to make sure that the anesthesiologist knows the patient’s anatomy and can anticipate problems. Apparently, my anatomy was a little more vexing than he had bargained for. However, he was finally able to get the tube in and the surgery went well.

The use of robotics

Because of the ever-present risk of serious complications, researchers are always working on improving intubation to minimize risk. It has always been a hands-on procedure that depended on the skill of the individual performing it. Now we may be moving into a whole new world of intubation thanks to advances in robotics.

Medical News Today is reporting that Dr. Thomas Hemmerling of McGill University and his team have developed a robotic system for intubation that can be operated via remote control. According to Dr. Hemmerling:

The [device] allows us to operate a robotically mounted video-laryngoscope using a joystick from a remote workstation. This robotic system enables the anesthesiologist to insert an endotracheal tube safely into the patient’s trachea with precision.

The system is still in development. It has been widely tested with mannequins that mimic human anatomy, and clinical testing on patients has now begun. Dr. Hemmerling hopes that the new device will allow anesthesiologists to intubate patients using less force and higher precision, which should help to improve patient safety. Even with the use of robotics, I would think that intubation, including pre-operative assessment of individual anatomy, is going to require close hands-on involvement in order to ensure that it is done safely and properly, but it is always exciting to see what was once science fiction being used in real-life surgeries.

What you can do

While robotic anesthesiology is still down the road for most of us, there are still things you can do to minimize your risk of injury. Before agreeing to surgery, most of us do a good job of vetting our surgeon – how experienced he or she is, how many similar procedures he or she has performed. How many times have you heard a friend describe his or her surgeon as “the best?” Yet virtually no one who has been a patient – at least in my experience – makes any inquiry into the experience level of the anesthesiologist, even though a mistake by this person can render you paralyzed or brain-dead (or even dead) in a matter of minutes.

If you are planning on undergoing serious surgery, I would encourage you to discuss the anesthesia care with your surgeon. Find out ahead of time who your anesthesiologist is going to be (if that’s possible), and discuss your situation with that person. No doubt you will be evaluated by the anesthesiology team before your surgery, but it may well be the same day as your surgery, and it will feel like just another routine matter like signing a few forms. Keep in mind, however, that anesthesiology is just as important as the surgery itself. Stay informed and ask questions. Treat your pre-operative session with the anesthesiologist as if your life and health were depending on it – it just may!

And as for robotics, I’m curious what your comfort level would be if your doctor suggested using a robot to intubate you? Would you be willing to try the procedure, or would you prefer the traditional hands-on, human approach?

Image from “Today’s Medical Developments”

Aneurysms – A Potentially Deadly Condition That May Present as Back Pain

Monday, April 18th, 2011

I have been writing a series of blogs devoted to common and not-so-common causes of back pain, some of which cause devastating and catastrophic injury.  Aneurysms of the aorta, either in the chest or abdominal cavity, can present as back pain, and these can often be fatal if not diagnosed or treated in a short period of time.

Considering that 1 in every 50 males over the age of 55 have an abdominal aneurysm, this is a more common pathologic diagnosis than some others.  Men also corner the market at an 8-to-1 ratio as compared to women with abdominal aneurysms. Thoracic aneurysms make up only 10% of the total number of aneurysms of the aorta, but these have a much poorer prognosis.

What is an aneurysm?

An aneurysm is a localized dilatation (i.e. the widening or stretching of an opening or a hollow structure in the body) of a blood vessel or even the heart, itself, due to some induced weakness in the wall of the vessel. The aorta is the largest blood vessel leaving the heart and transporting blood, oxygen and nutrition to every cell in the human body. It has the highest pressures and the thickest walls.

Should the weakness in the wall of the vessel rupture, blood will be released in such quantities and at such high pressures that the rapid blood loss causes a rapid death in most patients. There are a few exceptions, depending on which side of the blood vessel ruptures. If the rupture occurs on the side facing the abdominal cavity, the blood loss tends to be rapid since no opposing structures obstruct the flow. If the rupture occurs on the side facing the spinal column, structures in the near vicinity can actually slow the flow of blood allowing for a small time frame for diagnosis and intervention to occur. Sometimes, there is a slow “leak” of blood prior to a massive rupture, and this blood causes irritation and pain, allowing for a “window-of-opportunity” for a diagnosis to be made and intervention to occur.

I’ve provided a link at the end of this article to a well done video explaining aneurysms.

Real Case Scenario:

Patient M was a 62-year-old, moderately obese female, who came to the ER when I was working one day, complained of some vague low back pain and several episodes where she briefly lost consciousness that morning while trying to get up and move around. No injuries were sustained, but she felt very weak and light-headed. Her blood pressure was 109/68 while lying flat with a heart rate of 96. An attempt was made to obtain a blood pressure while sitting, but Patient M became near-syncopal and sweaty. A quick examination of her abdomen revealed a pulsatile aneurysm in her abdomen measuring 6cm (almost 2 1/2 inches wide). I was able to contact the vascular surgeon, have nurses place appropriate IV lines and obtain labs, and I notified the nursing supervisor regarding the need for an operating room. Patient M actually went for a CT scan on her way to the OR; the CT verified a “leaking” abdominal aortic aneurysm. Patient M was in the OR within 20 minutes of my evaluation. Upon opening the abdomen, the bleeding worsened, but the surgical team was prepared. They did have to resuscitate Patient M once, but a repair of the aorta was effective, and she went home within one week of her life-saving operation!

How is an aortic aneurysm diagnosed?

Most are actually diagnosed incidentally when patients undergo various diagnostic studies for other, unrelated complaints.These are the luckiest patients, because aneurysms can be detected early, monitored and then the patient can be offered elective intervention before an acute rupture occurs. It seems that 5cm (about 2 inches) is the “magic number” when it comes to an indication for repair since an aneurysm larger than that significantly increases the risk of rupture. Now, with endovascular (i.e. procedures in which a catheter is placed inside the blood vessel) repair options (“stenting procedures”), some of these aneurysm repairs can be done in a minimally invasive manner, offered even earlier, and have very good outcomes with only 2-to-3 day hospital stays.

Routine but thorough physical exams by a conscientious practitioner can ofter detect aneurysms in the abdomen simply by feeling the abdomen by hand. The chest cavity is more difficult for obvious reasons. Chest x-rays can sometimes suggest a problem if calcifications are present in the vessel wall (high-lighting the vessel contour) or if abnormalities are detected in the mid-line structures that overlap in this 2-dimensional picture. These patients can then undergo subsequent imaging studies to determine the existence and extent of the aneurysm.

When aneurysms go undetected, the acute presentation can also vary depending on the location of the aneurysm both in relation to the distance from the heart and the side of the vessel. Because of the position of the aorta anatomically (close to the spine), patients often experience back pain due to impingement of the spine and spinal nerves. If the aneurysm is in the chest cavity (thoracic), one often will feel upper to mid-back pain that can range from dull and aching to searing and excruciating; this may or may not accompany chest pain and other symptoms. If the aneurysm is in the abdomen (most often below the arteries that supply the kidneys), a patient will often complain of low back pain that could extend into the groin, and again, this pain can be dull and aching or sharp and excruciating.

What causes aortic aneurysms to occur?

The most common cause of aortic aneurysms is atherosclerotic vascular disease, commonly called cholesterol-plaqueing of the arteries. There are a multitude of other causes such as genetic conditions, fungal infections, bacterial infections, and other collagen-vascular diseases. Those individuals who have abnormal cholesterol panels, high blood pressure, perhaps a history of coronary artery disease or peripheral vascular disease, and diabetes are at risk for aortic aneurysms as they age.

Bottom line?

So, a person who is a little older with perhaps some of these notable risk factors who develops unusual back pain with no apparent precipitating cause (excessive physical activity/labor, fall, etc.) should be evaluated for a possible aneurysm. If present and detected, it is often a treatable condition; left untreated, it will ultimately lead to death, which is often sudden. Medical technology even offers minimally invasive procedures that are quite effective if treated early enough and located in an accessible region. Keep in mind that thoracic aneuryms do have a worse prognosis than abdominal aneurysms.

Here’s the link to the video explaining aneurysms.

Image from aorticstents.com

Spinal Stroke: An atypical cause of back pain

Monday, April 11th, 2011

When one hears the word stroke, what typically comes to mind is a “brain attack” with slurred speech or numbness and weakness of the right or left side of the body. Well, the spinal cord is considered part of the central nervous system and is truly a direct connection to the brain. All of the data received through nerve endings in our bodies passes through the spinal cord to be interpreted in the brain. Likewise, the messages our brain is sending to our bodies, both consciously and unconsciously (e.g. walk, run, write, speak; and digest food, breath, increase heart rate, etc.), travel through the spinal cord to our peripheral nerves.

The spinal cord is a vital structure that has its own blood supply, much like other organs, including the heart and brain. Just like the blood vessels supplying the other organs, the spinal arteries, especially the anterior spinal artery, can become occluded (i.e. blocked) resulting in spinal cord ischemia or infarction. The nerve information can no longer travel to and from the brain or the body freely; it is interrupted. This equates to a “stroke” of the spinal cord with resultant numbness, weakness, paralysis, as well as bowel and bladder dysfunction below the level of the infarction/stroke.

What causes a “spinal stroke”?

The most common cause of spinal stroke is the same as that for brain stroke or heart attack……atherosclerosis, an accumulation of cholesterol plaque in the arterial wall that ultimately blocks the artery. No blood flow means no oxygen or nutrients to the cells and tissues of the spinal cord resulting in them “starving to death.” There are other causes, as well; anything that compresses one of the supply arteries can block blood flow to a region of the cord and result in “stroke.”

Tumors, either primary or metastatic, can compresses blood vessels and other structures as they grow in the spinal region. Anterior disc herniations and disc ruptures or bone fragments from traumatic fractures of the vertebrae can compress blood vessels in the immediate vicinity.

Collections of pus from infectious processes can interrupt the blood supply either by compressing a vessel or disintegrating the blood vessel.  Small pieces of blood clots (called emboli) can break-off from larger clots (called thrombi) and circulate through the bloodstream until they get “stuck” in a smaller vessel somewhere else in the body; the spinal artery is just one location. Other systemic diseases can result in vasculitis, or an inflammation of the blood vessel, that leads to clotting and occlusion of that vessel, and the spinal artery is just one of the vessels that can be affected.

Surgery and spinal stroke

Interestingly, inter-abdominal and spinal surgical procedures can also lead to spinal cord ischemia and stroke. Individuals undergoing repair of an aortic aneurysm or iliac-to-femoral artery bypass often require “cross-clamping” of the aorta above the level of the surgery. The “golden hour” referred to in heart attack victims can also be applied to other vascular ischemic conditions, like spinal artery ischemia; if complications arise and the cross-clamp time is too long, it can result in ischemia from which the patient may never recover, remaining paralyzed for life. Similarly, an aortic dissection can disrupt blood flow to the smaller arteries branching from the aorta to feed the spinal cord leading to ischemia.

Spinal surgeries take one of two approaches, anterior (going through the belly) or posterior (going through the back). Because of the proximity of all of the vital structures, including the major blood vessels, small errors or retained fragments can lead to occlusion or disruption of the spinal blood supply.

Who is at risk for spinal stroke?

Those individuals with risk factors for heart disease or brain stroke are also at risk for spinal stroke since they share a common etiology. This includes those individuals with poorly-controlled diabetes, high cholesterol or dyslipidemia, abnormal clotting of the blood, peripheral arterial disease or history of aneurysms.

What are the symptoms of a spinal stroke?

Most patients present with sudden, severe pain, much like a heart attack, in either the chest or the back or both. This pain is typically rapidly followed by numbness, or loss of pain sensation and temperature sensation, in the extremities below the level of the stroke. Because of the anatomy of the blood supply, vibration sensation and position sense are maintained in the affected region since the posterior region of the cord has a different blood supply. As the spinal stroke progresses over an hour or so, the extremities affected become weaker and weaker, often experiencing paralysis, and the bowel and bladder lose their innervation leading to dysfunction and incontinence. This is a fairly rapid progression, much different that other myelopathies.

What is the treatment?

Due to the relative rarity of this condition, not many studies have been done regarding treatments. Unlike “heart attack” or “brain attack,” there are no standards of care except for aspirin therapy and (potentially) anti-platelet therapy after the stroke has occurred. More often than not, there is a delay in diagnosing the condition due to the rarity of the condition and the need to confirm the diagnosis by a diffusion-weighted enhanced MRI of the spine, such that “clot-busting” agents are time-excluded from use. Treatments are then focused on preventing additional vascular events, preventing deep vein thromboses in the paralyzed limbs, preventing bladder infections and fecal impactions, preventing decubitus ulcers and soft tissue infections, and preventing the additional morbidity associated with paralysis. This is not a comforting thought!

We are blessed with today’s medical technological advances that allow for so many life-saving procedures and procedures that preserve body function, such as spinal surgery, vascular stenting procedures and epidural injections. Unfortunately, some of these procedures have increased the incidence of spinal strokes due to the nature of the procedures themselves. The current epidemic of obesity and metabolic syndrome is also indicative of more cases of diabetes and atherosclerotic vascular disease which, according to the law of probability, will increase the incidence of this potentially devastating medical condition.

Clinical Trials Underway

Do you know someone who has had a spinal stroke? What was his or her age? What might have precipitated the “attack”? Some individuals have been in their early 20′s when the attack occurred. Needless to say, this is truly devastating! With all of our advanced technology, we should be doing a better job of preventing, diagnosing and treating this condition. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) does offer clinical trials for this condition; please refer to their website for further information. ( http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/spinal_infarction/spinal_infarction.htm)

Image from homebusinessandfamilylife.com

Spinal Epidural Abscess: A basic primer

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Epidural abscess compressing the spinal cord -courtesy of aafp.org

In a previous blog, I introduced the topic of neck and back pain which can have a host of causes, most of which are mechanical.  This blog attempts to explore an infectious etiology of neck and back pain that can be potentially devastating, resulting in paralysis and even death.

The spine is a complicated structure involving bones, discs, ligaments, muscles, blood vessels and nerves.  It’s two main functions are to provide axial support for the upright stature of the human body and fluid movement of the body parts while also protecting or housing a critical component of the central nervous system, the spinal cord. Oversimplified, the spinal cord is a conglomeration of nerve fibers that act as the “information highway” between the peripheral nerves supplying sensory and motor function to the body parts and the brain. The spinal cord transmits chemical messages from the brain, telling the body what to do and how to function, even functions we are not conscious of doing (digestion, breathing, etc.), and it receives input from all of our senses and interprets the data.  Without the spinal cord or if the spinal cord is affected by an injury, there is disconnect; we lose feeling and movement as well as control of some of our normal unconscious body functions.  The location of the spinal cord damage dictates the level at which the disconnect occurs.  To help you understand the anatomy of the spine, here’s a short video describing the basic anatomy of the spine.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zeo0Im7h4Go

 

An epidural abscess is a collection of pus that occurs as the result of an infectious process involving any part of the  spinal cord from the base of the head to the tailbone; the abscess is located within the protective boney compartment housing the spinal cord, the spinal canal, and the thick outer covering of the spinal cord, the dura.  The dura is comprised of 3 layers, the outer one being very tough, the middle one being very vascular, and the inner one being very “tender.”

Signs and Symptoms:

In the early stages of the infection, a patient will often complain of neck or back pain very specific to the location of the infection, but the pain can be referred due to nerve root irritation.  As the infection grows, it spreads along the axial plane of the spinal canal, but the pressure and swelling of the purulent collection also tends to compress the spinal cord, resulting in numbness, tingling and functional loss below the level of the compression.  This progression can be indolent or rapid, depending on both the virulence of the pathogen and the person’s immune system.  Without emergent treatment, the pus collection can “choke off” the spinal cord and its blood supply, leading to permanent spinal cord injury and paralysis.

How does the infection get there?

Patients who have undergone spinal surgery are at an increased risk of these types of infections, especially during the immediate post-operative period.  Surgical wounds can become infected allowing bacteria to track deep into the tissues and the spine through the operative plane.  If hardware (spinal instrumentation) has been used, these man-made devices become reservoirs or fomites for attachment of the bacteria, and it is extremely difficult to eradicate bacterial pathogens from the hardware.

The bloodstream is another source of migration for bacterial pathogens from peripheral sites (infected gums, endocarditis, bladder infection, skin abscesses/boils) to the spine.  Individuals particularly at risk are those with depleted immune systems (e.g. diabetics, patients with auto-immune diseases on chronic steroids, HIV, etc.) and IV drug abusers (directly inject materials into veins).  Having spinal hardware from a previous spine surgery will increase the risk of seeding to that instrumented site should bacteria become blood-borne.

Direct inoculation can occur if  poor technique is utilized during epidural spinal injections or epidural anaesthesia.  There can also be contiguous spread from adjacent infected tissues (e.g. diskitis, osteomyelitis).

What are the most common pathogens?

Staph aureus, a common skin pathogen, is the most common cause.  It is known to cause skin abscesses/boils, wound infections, sinus infections, bladder infections and even pneumonia!  The relatively recent incidence of MRSA (a very resistent variety of Staph aureus) in the community has changed the way medicine treats common skin ailments; its effect on the incidence and treatment of epidural abscesses has yet to be determined.  If an epidural abscess is suspected, antibiotic coverage for MRSA is now automatically included in the initial treatment due to the bacterial virulence and resistance to treatment.

E. coli ( a common bowel pathogen and cause of bladder infection), fungi (like yeast), and even Mycobacterium tuberculosis are also causes of epidural abscess.  One can also contract mixed infections with aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, depending on the source of the infection (intra-abdominal abscess, perforated appendix).

How is an epidural abscess diagnosed?

The clinician must have a high index of suspicion and keep an open mind.  A thorough history often leads to clues such as recent fevers, a recent skin abscess or cellulitis, IV drug abuse, recent dental extraction or procedure, and neck or back pain without a specific inciting incident.  Physical examination of the patient often reveals point tenderness directly over the affected area of the spine, worse with percussion or tapping on the boney prominences, and often worse in the recumbent position.

Visualization of the spine is best accomplished with an MRI of the spine (above, below and including the tender area); it is non-invasive and very detailed regarding the soft tissues.  Patient weight can be a factor in accessing these machines; they often have a maximum weight limit of 300 lbs.  Many morbidly obese patients, who often have type II diabetes, are at risk for epidural abscesses; they often have to be transported to external facilities for “open MRI” studies.  Claustrophobia can also be a restricting factor, often requiring patient sedation or anaesthesia.  Excruciating pain while lying flat can also be prohibitive.  An alternative study to visualize the spinal cord is a CT-myelogram during which the epidural space is accessed with a spinal needle and dye is injected for visualization under computed tomography.  The CT-myelogram is a higher-risk study and can also be limited by a patient’s weight and sensitivity to contrast dye.  A lumbar puncture should NOT be done since it can lead to spinal cord herniation and permanent spinal injury.

What is the treatment for an epidural abscess?

There are two schools of thought regarding treatment.  One school favors emergent surgical debridement of the abscess along with intravenous antibiotics; this also allows for identification and sensitivity testing of the organism.  The other school suggests that intravenous antibiotics alone can be sufficient if no signs of spinal cord impingement are present; if symptoms progress to the development of neurologic symptoms, then surgery becomes more urgent.

What is the prognosis in epidural abscess?

Prognosis depends on the patient’s underlying medical condition and the degree of spinal cord involvement at the time of diagnosis/intervention.  Obviously, the earlier the intervention and treatment, the better the prognosis; hence, I favor surgical debridement as soon as possible.  Delays in diagnosis often lead to permanent and life-altering neurologic damage and functional loss or even death.  These delays and the permanent neurologic sequellae suffered often become the basis for medical malpractice litigation.

Lap-Band (Weight Loss) Surgery: is it for you? FDA clears new Allergan system and opens door to more patients

Monday, February 21st, 2011

The FDA recently approved Allergan’s Lap-Band weight loss surgery (which is a form of what is known as bariatric surgery). By its 8-2 vote, the FDA cleared the way for patients who are significantly less obese (BMI of 30) than those who would have qualified for weight loss surgery before this recent approval.

Knowing that this controversial clearance vote was on the horizon, major news networks aired stories on the pro’s and con’s of “broadening the base” of patients, who would now qualify. Here’s a report by ABC News’ Diane Sawyer in December 2010. (Sorry about the lead-in ad. If it were not a good report, I would have found something “ad-less” to present the issue!)

With the FDA’s announcement came somewhat of a firestorm of criticism. As reported locally in the Baltimore Sun (actually written by Thomas H. Maugh II of the Los Angeles Times), the approval has raised “concerns” by many in the medical community, who fear that this surgery will now be seen as a “quick fix” to the obesity plague in this country.

“I’m very concerned,” said Dr. Ted Khalili, former director of bariatric surgery at Cedars-Sinai hospital and founder of the Khalili Center for Bariatric Care in Beverly Hills. “You can’t be driving down a street and have a flashbulb go off and think that this will be an easy fix.”

What Dr. Khalili seems to be referring to is a marketing drive that directs patients to clinics that perform the procedure using the Allergan device. Here’s (to the right) a photo that shows exactly what this is all about.

Patient deaths following procedure lead to litigation in California

Maugh reports in his piece in the LA Times that four patients have died following the Allergan lap-band procedure. Lawsuits have followed. In a related article by another Los Angeles Times reporter, some details emerge.

Laura Faitro of Simi Valley died July 26, 2010, five days after surgery at Valley Surgical Center in West Hills. Three other patients have died shortly after surgery at an associated center in Beverly Hills, relatives have alleged in lawsuits and interviews.

Supporters speak out as well

While there are many who have decried the FDA’s approval and the lowering of the qualification standards to undergo this new lap-band procedure, there are certainly those who are in support of its potential therapeutic effects:

For those with Type 2 diabetes, the Lap-Band could be an immediate fix. “This operation takes about an hour, and two days in the hospital, and these people go off their diabetes medication. It’s unbelievable,” Dr. Walter J. Pories, a professor of surgery at East Carolina University and a leading researcher on weight-loss surgery, said in this L.A. Times report.

All surgery – including this new lap-band procedure – has significant risks

Whether one should consider taking advantage of this new procedure is a matter between the patient and his/her surgeon. After advising that not all risks or complications of undergoing this new procedure are listed in its website overview, the product’s manufacturer, Allergan, provides the following information:

Placement of the LAP-BAND® System is major surgery and, as with any surgery, death can occur. Possible complications include the risks associated with the medications and methods used during surgery, the risks associated with any surgical procedure, and the patient’s ability to tolerate a foreign object implanted in the body.

Band slippage, erosion and deflation, obstruction of the stomach, dilation of the esophagus, infection, or nausea and vomiting may occur. Reoperation may be required.

Rapid weight loss may result in complications that may require additional surgery. Deflation of the band may alleviate excessively rapid weight loss or esophageal dilation.

While many people seem to be intrigued by a “quick fix” surgical method of weight loss, some necessary clearance hurdles stand in the way – and should! Allergan is requiring all surgeons who want to order and perform surgery with the manufacturer’s new device “to first complete a comprehensive proctorship and training program, have advanced laparoscopic skills and (we believe this is key) have the staff and resources needed to comply with the long-term follow-up requirements of obesity procedures.”

I would add here that in our experience of handling lawsuits involving catastrophic injuries and death claims following bariatric procedures, issues relating to selection of proper surgical candidates and post-procedure follow-up and compliance have many times been at the core of these cases.

Not a “quick fix” replacement for exercise, diet and possible medication

As anyone who has been involved in any manner with issues relating to bariatric, weight-loss surgery, this is not the first step to be taken toward losing weight. Sure, it sounds enticing to go into a clinic or hospital, have a one hour procedure, and all your weight issues are a thing of the past. First of all, that is not how this works at all. Pre-procedure clearance does and must be taken seriously and not be a mere sham.

There is no doubt that there is a financial benefit for the providers of this procedure; it is reported that it will cost approximately $25,000 for the device, surgeon and operating room costs. It is also said that many insurance policies may cover all or part of this cost. That being said, even Allergan cautions that this is not a drive-by way to achieve weight loss. Read its Lap-Band System Fact Sheet and Lap-Band Labeling and Safety Information if you are interested in knowing more about the indications, alternatives, risks, benefits and advantages of this newly approved system. In addition, make certain that the surgeon you are consulting meets the qualifying standards of the manufacturer. Ask questions – it’s your body, your life.

As a side note, in case you are wondering if your BMI qualifies you for consideration of this procedure, here’s a handy BMI calculator made available online by the National Heart Blood Lung Institute – Calculate your BMI.

Know anyone who has had this or other forms of weight loss surgery?

If you or someone you know has undergone a procedure involving this new device by Allergan, share your story with our readers. If you or someone you know has undergone bariatric surgery, we also invite you to please share your story of how this worked for you or those you may know. Has it changed your or their life? If so – for the better or worse?

Hospitals Fined Heavily for Unsafe Practices – medical malpractice pure and simple!

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Well this headline got my immediate attention!

HOSPITAL FINED $300,000 FOR LEAVING A DRILL BIT IN PATIENT’S HEAD.  Rhode Island Hospital (RIH) was fined by the state’s Department of Health with the largest penalty in state history and only the 3rd posed against a hospital for surgical errors.

How does such a mistake happen? I went to the article and then saw similar articles over the last year.

CALIFORNIA HOSPITALS FINED FOR ENDANGERING PATIENT SAFETY

TEMPLE TO PAY (the US Government) $130,000 TO SETTLE DRUG DIVERSION CLAIMS

BOTCHED RADIATION TREATMENTS LEAD TO FINE FOR VA

Yes, states are fining hospitals, the US government is fining hospitals, and the US government is even fining government hospitals for unsafe practices. State, regional and national news publications are breaking the stories and making the public aware of their hospitals’ most costly mistakes.  Over the last two decades, more and more states are requiring hospitals to report serious errors and fining them for failing to do so. One way or the other, hospitals pay for serious mistakes and suffer media scrutiny at the same time.

The Rhode Island Director of Health reported “a troubling pattern” of patient safety procedural violations at RIH.  On October 15th of this year, a surgical instrument was found in the abdomen of a patient who had undergone surgery three months before. This followed an August incident when a quarter inch drill bit broke off in a patient undergoing brain surgery. While aware the bit was missing, no one in the operating suite investigated where it went. The next day an MRI identified the bit in the patient’s brain. This error placed the patient at serious risk of harm during the MRI. Magnetic forces during the MRI could have moved the metal drill bit causing significant brain injury.

Clinical standards of care require all surgical instruments to be counted at the beginning and end of a procedure. If the count is incorrect, xrays are immediately taken. If found in the patient, the instrument is removed before the conclusion of the procedure. This healthcare industry-wide patient safety procedure has been in place for well over 30 years. The simpe, straightforward procedure was not undertaken according to Rhode Island news reports. In addition, the state found anesthesiologists at RIH don’t wear masks while in the operating room, and no actions had been taken to correct the behavior.

The Director of Health also reported in 2009, RIH was fined $150,000 and ordered to hire a consultant to improve operating suite procedures; shut down surgeries for 1 day to conduct mandatory training; and install audio/video monitoring devices to ensure compliance. This all happened when a surgeon operated on the wrong finger which was the 5th time a wrong body part had been operated on in 3 years at RIH.  Things have not improved in 2010. The fines are getting heftier and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)  as well as state professional licensing boards are now involved. Federal government intervention has only happened one other time in Rhode Island’s healthcare history.

Rhode Island is not alone. As the headlines above show, California, after enacting a new state law in 2007, reports that over $4.8 million in healthcare administrative penalties have been issued with $2.9 million collected to date. California news stories began breaking last January (2010) when thirteen hospitals were fined $50,000 each and another was fined $25,000 four times. In April, seven more hospitals were fined. In May, nine more hospitals $550,000 in penalties imposed.

The deputy director for public health, Kathleen Billingsley, told the press that Californians have a right to receive the minimum level of required state standards. Out of 146 penalties, hospitals were appealing 37 in an April news report. Notable infractions resulting in fines included:

  • Man hospitalized with a heart attack died after his cardiac monitor had been disconnected.
  • Woman misdiagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy was given chemotherapy drugs. She was not pregnant.
  • Two ER nurses without documented clinical competencies or life support training failed to record vital signs in a 5 month old with a temperature of 105.4.
  • An operative sponge was left in a patient and discovered a year later. Three operations were required to eventually remove the sponge.
  • A wrong knee was operated on.
  • Contrast material for radiology was given to a patient with a known iodine allergy resulting in death.
  • An oxygen tank became empty during a simple ultrasound procedure resulting in the patient’s death. The patient had waited in radiology over 60 minutes for the procedure allowing the tank to run dry.
  • A patient aspirated a laryngoscope plastic blade extender during intubation for an outpatient surgery. It was not discovered until the patient called post operatively complaining of coughing up plastic.

In March, the Department of Veteran Affairs, which oversees the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center was fined $227,500 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This was the second largest fine against a medical facility. Between 2002 and 2008, Iodine 125 seeds were placed incorrectly in 97 out of 116 prostate cancer patients. There were inconsistent doses, unintended organs and tissues radiated leading to a myriad of complications for the victims including excessive radiation. Many of the incorrect procedures initially went unreported.

While I applaud these fines and would like to see stronger sanctions, several questions came to mind after reading these reports. Are states and the federal government merely cashing-in and paying-down healthcare deficits, or putting this revenue to good use such as improving patient safety? How much of the revenue is being consumed in hospital appeal proceedings? Is this an effective incentive for hospitals to change or merely perceived by them as a cost of doing business in today’s high paced and burdened healthcare system?

What do you think?

New Guidelines for Vaginal Births After Cesarean Section – Abandoning the Principle of “Once a Cesarean Always a Cesarean”

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

For decades, expecting mothers were encouraged to deliver via C-section if they had a history of previous C-sections. The maxim “once a cesarean, always a cesarean” became the default approach for many OB/GYNs around the country. This may no longer be the case.

This year, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a number of less restrictive guidelines for vaginal births after C-sections. According to William A. Grobman, M.D. an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University and co-author of the new guidelines, women with two previous C-sections and no vaginal deliveries, women expecting twins, and women with vaginal scarring from previous C-sections are now acceptable candidates for vaginal deliveries. The new guidelines are supported by two recent studies that examined the risk of complications in women with a history of two previous C-sections who attempted vaginal delivery.

One [study] found no increased risk of uterine rupture in women with one vs. multiple previous C-sections, while the other study found the risk increased from 0.9% to 1.8% in women with one vs. two previous C-sections.

The new guidelines make the following recommendations:

  • Women with more than one previous C-section may be candidates for a trial of labor. … The chance of achieving a vaginal birth after C-section seems similar for women with one or more than one C-sections.
  • Women who have an unknown type of scar from a previous C-section can also be considered for a trial of labor.
  • Women expecting twins can be offered the trial of labor.
  • A trial of labor is not recommended in others, including women who are at high risk for complications, such as women with a previous uterine rupture or extensive uterine surgery.
  • Previous guidelines recommended that resources for emergency C-sections be ”immediately available.” “That was interpreted to mean all staff, literally immediately available,” Grobman says. In the new guidelines, the ACOG recommends that a trial of labor after C-section ideally be done in facilities well staffed to provide immediate emergency care, but that in a facility without immediate staff available, those doctors and patients discuss the resources and staff availability and carefully consider the decision to try labor.

The new guidelines clearly encourage vaginal deliveries for expecting mothers with previous C-sections. However, Grobman and his colleagues were clear that, although the risk appears minimal, trial of labor after C-sections does carry a number of risks, including uterine rupture, hemorrhage, and infection. For this reason, notwithstanding these  new recommendations, the expecting mother and the physician should carefully discuss and consider the decision to try labor. If you meet the criteria, we urge you to fully understand the potential risks, complications as well as the benefits of vaginal birth after Cesarean Section.