Recently in Wrongful Death Category

Oral Cancer and Medical Malpractice

August 15, 2014

4747536941_b5435b1df0_b.jpgThroughout the country, patients are being diagnosed with oral cancers that should have been detected by their dentists. Overall, these patients are diagnosed at a young age, and suffer poor outcomes in their cancer treatment. Medical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins dive deeper into this issue and how unsuspecting Americans are being victimized.

Many different types of cancer can fall under the category of 'oral' including tongue, tonsil, throat, esophageal, and mouth. More than 43,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer every year, and this number is only increasing. Most oral cancers are caused by one of three factors:

1. Excessive or long-term tobacco or alcohol use
2. Exposure to the HPV-16 virus (also the cause of cervical cancer in women)
3. Exposure to asbestos

About 7% of those diagnosed, however, have no identifiable cause other than genetic predisposition. Unfortunately, oral cancers are extremely hard to treat and therefore extraordinarily fatal when not caught early - about 43% of late-stage patients pass away within five years of diagnosis.

This is why early detection is so important, and such a critical responsibility for dentists and other medical practitioners. Dental professionals are the first line of defense against detecting and confirming oral cancer. Most Americans see a dentist every year, if dentists performed cancer screenings for their existing patients, it would allow thousands of cancer cases to be caught early.

The public can relate this to the importance of getting regular PAP smears, prostate exams, and mammograms, and how this has positively impacted early detection rates in the U.S. Current studies show that less than 15% of dental patients report having an oral cancer screening at their last checkup.

Medical Malpractice Lawsuits by Cancer Patients


One particular study by the University of Nebraska Medical center analyzed medical malpractice litigation in the U.S. Researchers looked at patients diagnosed with oral cancer who consequently filed malpractice lawsuits as a result of their diagnosis and treatment. They used data from jury reviews between 1984 and 2000, choosing about 50 cases to analyze.

Among the cases, researchers noticed that the average age of plaintiffs was relatively young (45 years), and nearly half died from the disease. Generally, the younger plaintiffs had better outcomes and won higher awards compared to older plaintiffs. The average jury award for younger plaintiffs was just over $755,000, while older plaintiffs averaged just shy of $500,000.

In 43 of the 50 analyzed cases, dentists, general practitioners or otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) were accused of failing to diagnose the cancer. Other common allegations were failing to perform biopsies and failing to refer patients to oncologists. Ultimately, researchers recommended that medical professionals should set risk management goals to prevent delays in diagnosis.

In addition to early detection, public awareness is arguably the most important aspect of early detection. Speaking for hypochondriacs everywhere, it is easy to misdiagnose every lesion and abnormality as "cancer," however, oral cancer is actually quite difficult to detect. Most people have some type of oral conditions, such as cold sores, wounds and sores that can mimic pre-cancerous tissue.

It is important to remember to watch these areas over time. Any type of abnormality - whether it be a sore, irritation, swollen tissue, discoloration, or hoarseness - that does not resolve within two weeks should be examined further. Patients should notify their dentist, who should conduct a thorough cancer screening.

Continue reading "Oral Cancer and Medical Malpractice" »

The Problem with Children's Emergency Care

July 21, 2014

my-brave-boy.jpgAmerican parents expect the treatment their children receive - whether it's at school, day care or at the hospital - to be the best, most compassionate care. Unfortunately, the majority of doctors working in emergency care units have had only minimal experience, an average of four months, working with children. Medical malpractice attorneys at Pintas & Mullins further explain this problem and how American children are suffering the consequences.

Children are three times more likely to suffer a serious medication error than adults. Clinically, children are not just 'little adults.' Their metabolic rates are completely different, so medications dissolve at faster rates. Children often have undiagnosed allergies, and doses need to be adjusted for weight and other factors.

To help combat this, some hospitals are hiring staffs of full-time pharmacists in the ER to reduce medication errors and adverse events. Medication errors contribute to approximately 7,000 deaths in the country every year, and are particularly dangerous in children. The Children's Medical Center in Dallas, for example, was recently profiled on NPR for hiring ten new 24-hour pharmacists who specialize in emergency medicine.

The overriding issue, however, is that emergency room doctors are often young with little experience. Millions of children visit the ER each year, however, only one in ten children are able to see doctors with any real experience in pediatrics. The remaining 90% of kids are treated in general ERs, such as at community hospitals, where just four months of training in pediatrics is required.

Statistically, about 30% of ER patients are children; however, the education doctors receive in pediatrics represents less than 10% of their training. In 2006, the Institute of Medicine released a report titled "Emergency Care for Children: Growing Pains." In this report, the Institute describes the unique challenges facing emergency departments in their treatment of children.

Researchers involved in this project found that many general ER physicians feel much more stress and anxiety when caring for pediatric patients compared to adults. Too often, this causes doctors to under-treat and fail to stabilize children who are critically ill. Unlike adult patients, there are no established patterns for treating children in the ER, which leads to a wide array of treatments that may not always work.

Change is Coming


Fortunately, there are concerted efforts throughout the country aimed at fixing this problem. One of these programs, Improving Pediatric Acute Care Through Simulation (ImPACTS), conducted 200 fake pediatric emergencies in 25 emergency departments, the majority of which were in community hospitals. Their findings were alarming to say the least.

Among treatments for pediatric septic shock, only 13% of general emergency departments were compliant with treatment guidelines for children - compared to over 93% of pediatric EDs that were in full compliance. Community hospitals also showed severed deficiency in delivering life-saving fluids and blood pressure medications to children, and were much less likely to administer correct doses of other drugs or comply with other pediatric guidelines for life-threatening conditions, such as cardiac arrest.

So what can be done? Experts agree that doctors need to receive more education regarding pediatric emergency care in their formal training, including mandatory continued education for emergency medicine residents targeted specifically toward pediatrics. There has also been immense effort put into incorporating functioning partnerships between community hospitals and children's hospitals. Collaborations of this kind will allow constant information exchanges, including educational forums, emergency consultations, and opportunities for continued pediatric emergency medicine.

Continue reading "The Problem with Children's Emergency Care" »

Florida Wrongful Death Compensation Caps Reversed

July 2, 2014

8572607587_fff58574bf_c.jpgFlorida's Supreme Court recently struck down the state law limiting the amount victims of medical malpractice can collect for non-economic damages in cases of wrongful death. The original case was filed by the family of an Air Force pilot who died from complications while giving birth. Wrongful death lawyers at Pintas & Mullins take a closer look at this case, and what it means for Florida plaintiffs.

The pilot, 20-year-old Michelle McCall, was under the care of Air Force family medical personnel when she passed away, leaving her family not only with an immense loss, but significant medical bills and a newborn son without a mother as well. They filed suit against the medical unit, hoping to receive compensation for her wrongful death.

A Florida District Court determined that the family's financial losses amounted to over $980,000, and their non-economic damages (for grief, pain and suffering, and loss of a mother and daughter) totaled $2 million. Based on a Florida Statute, the court then limited the non-economic damages to $1 million, which was the cap for all wrongful death medical malpractice cases, regardless of circumstance.

The family appealed to the state's Supreme Court, which determined that putting a cap on the non-economic damages irrationally impacted situations, like McCalls, where there were multiple claimants. The Court further stated that the damage cap made it unlikely that those who suffered a devastating loss (or in cases where there are multiple survivors), the claimants would be not be fully compensated for their losses at $1 million.

Why Put Limits on Damages At All?


Proponents of placing caps on non-economic damages argue that placing limits on the amount plaintiffs can collect will reduce the amount of doctors' insurance, thus encouraging doctors to practicing in the state (conversely, higher malpractice insurance would deter physicians from working in the state). Despite years of politicians claiming this to be so, historical data tells us that non-economic damages caps in no way influence where a doctor will work.

This point was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, when it noted that the number of physicians practicing in Florida actually increased during a recent period when juries were awarding large amounts to plaintiffs. The Court stated that the caps arbitrarily reduce the rights of medical malpractice victims.

In a case like McCall's where there are multiple claimants (her son, her parents, and her son's father), the $1 million would have to be split between all of them. This unjustly prevents all claimants from receiving compensation for their losses. What's more, the basis of these damage caps is largely irrational, as the relationship between non-economic awards and medical malpractice insurance is unfounded.

The Supreme Court wrote in its opinion that Florida's damage cap has the effect of saving a modest amount for many (the state's doctors) by imposing devastating costs on a few (those most severely injured). These grievously injured plaintiffs are subjected to division and reduction of their damages not based on the merits of their case, but simply because of the existence of this cap.

This Supreme Court decision was groundbreaking in many ways. First, and most importantly, it struck down statutory caps on non-economic damages in malpractice cases that resulted in a wrongful death. This means that those bringing malpractice lawsuits based on personal injury in general -where no death was involved - will still be subject to damages caps.

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Trouble at VA Hospitals Nationwide

May 15, 2014

5451372776_cb3fcbee8d_b.jpgFederal authorities are conducting a nationwide review of all VA facilities, though the Hines VA Hospital in Chicago is being singled-out after a whistleblower exposed fraudulent activity resulting in harm to patients. Medical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins dig deeper into this story and how patients have been affected.

The whistleblower was a social worker at Hines and alleged that a hospital executive - a man who is already under a cloud of suspicion - implemented a "secret waiting list" similar to schemes in other VA hospitals in the country. This waiting list kept names of veterans who were to be denied treatment in a scheme to hit fast treatment goals and collect bonuses.

This prevented hundreds, even thousands of veterans who were seriously ill or dying from getting the treatment they desperately needed. Veterans waiting for physical or mental treatment were forced to wait for weeks and even months, so executives could reap in bonuses.

Local Chicago veterans are devastated by this news, which demonstrates the utter lack of respect in hospitals designated to serve those who once risked their lives for our country. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in response to this federal scandal, stated that the allegations, if true, are unacceptable and being taken very seriously by federal auditors. One local veteran stated that he typically has to wait one to four months for an appointment.

Illinois Senator Mark Kirk stated that the Inspector General, who is already conducting investigations in other VA hospitals accused of keeping similar lists, should immediately investigate Hines VA and provide a report as soon as possible. There will be Senate hearings on secret VA lists beginning Thursday, May 15, 2014, in Washington D.C.

Hines Hospital serves over 50,000 veterans every year. This scandal is not contained to Chicago - VA officials in Texas are concerned that some veterans passed away while waiting for treatments. Similar accusations are directed at the VA hospital in Phoenix, where about 40 veterans have died awaiting treatment and three executives are on administrative leave. Scandal is also stirring at the VA clinic in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Whistleblower Exposes Fraud


The Chicago whistleblower told reporters that employees were coming to her from almost all departments of this hospital, including surgery, inpatient, radiology, and outpatient, regarding the lists. When veterans called for an appointment, instead of logging their names into the computer system for the next available time, the patients were put on secret waiting lists, only formally booking them when an appointment came up within the VA's goal time of 14 days.

This was done because the VA grants bonuses to executives and doctors partly based on short wait times. Thus, patients were secretly waiting on these unofficial lists, to conceal delays in care to make Hines' numbers look better, and to collect cash rewards. This incentive program for 14 day wait times was implemented in 2011.

Many believe this practice is more widespread than just a handful of VA hospitals. The VA Secretary, Eric Shinseki, will be the first to testify during the Senate hearings this morning. Lawmakers are well aware that the VA is operated as a bureaucracy that often moves much too slowly, to the demise of its veteran patients. Shinseki recently ordered in-person audits of the scheduling systems at all VA medical centers in the country.

Continue reading "Trouble at VA Hospitals Nationwide" »

New Study Confirms 440,000 Deaths from Medical Negligence Every Year

May 12, 2014

the-stethoscope-31.jpgFor many years, the federal government asserted a very conservative 98,000 Americans were killed each year by preventable medical errors. New studies are finding what many experts know to be true - the number is actually much, much higher. In fact, around 440,000 Americans are killed annually by physician, hospital or nurse errors. Medical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins dive deeper into these studies and why so many are killed my negligence.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Patient Safety and was conducted to update decades-old data and official opinion on patient deaths caused by error. The Institute of Medicine and medical professionals constantly state that less than 100,000 Americans die annually from medical errors, however, that estimate is based on data from 1984.

Researchers involved in this study compiled medical records and studies published from 2008 to 2011, ultimately finding that the true number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients was over 440,000 per year. The amount of serious harm, but not death, done to patients was about 10 to 20 times more than this.

Those involved in this study called the prevalence of preventable medical errors an epidemic, and we hasten to agree. The reality of medical negligence needs to be taken much more seriously and publicly known if it is going to be reduced or curtailed in any way.

There are several interventions hospitals, patients and medical professionals can take to help lessen the frequency of medical errors. Among these include fully engaging patients and their families during hospital care, transparent and full accountability when mistakes do occur, systemically engaging with patients to identify precise injuries, and purposefully correcting the root of harm.

Medical errors cost our country tens of billions of dollars every year, yet federal and state legislatures limit accountability of doctors and place maximum amounts patients can receive from malpractice lawsuits. Not all states place damage caps on malpractice suits, but the ones that do (most notably California) leave patients at risk for more injuries from negligent care.

One in Three Hospital Patients Experience Medical Errors

One study published in the Archives of Surgery estimates that serious surgical mistakes occur about 40 times per week in U.S. hospitals. Serious surgical mistakes involve procedures performed on the wrong patient, on the wrong body part, or incorrect surgeries performed. These are also often referred to as "never events," because they should never occur in medical practice.

Medical care in the U.S. is extremely complex at all levels, and individual physicians generally do their best to optimize patient care. Guidelines and clinical research on how to apply optimal patient care quickly becomes out-of-date and is often biased, and the continuing education system for doctors is lacking. These among other factors are contributors to the knowledge and performance deficiencies in hospitals.

Patients can suffer injuries from medical errors immediately, or delayed for months or even years. For example, a patient may be injected with a drug using a needle contaminated by a harmful virus, like Hepatitis C, which may not be discovered until much later.

Continue reading "New Study Confirms 440,000 Deaths from Medical Negligence Every Year" »

Deadly New Orleans Outbreak leads to Questions on Hospital Safety

April 29, 2014

pediatric-polysomnogram.jpgSeveral children have died at the Children's Hospital in New Orleans after a horrifying outbreak of a flesh-eating fungus. The infectious fungus was spread by bed linens, towels and gowns, and new reports are raising serious questions about how the infections originated and why nothing was done to stop it for nearly a year. Medical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins look into the serious and dire issue of hospital-acquired infections.

The details of the deaths at Children's Hospital are gruesome. The first victim was a premature infant in the ICU who suffered an open wound from his groin to his abdomen. The most recent victim was a ten-year-old, who died with her face wasted away almost completely.

Other patients were forced to undergo dozens of surgeries to try to save their small bodies from the flesh-eating infection known as mucormycosis. The invasive fungal infection has an extraordinarily high fatality rate and primarily affects patients with compromise immune systems.

It took ten months after the death of the first victim for doctors to connect the dots between fatalities. Medical researchers identified the hospital's bed linens as the source that carried mucormycosis throughout the facility, where it came into contact with vulnerable patients and killed them between August 2008 and July 2009.

According to investigations, the infections went undetected for so long because of defects in the hospital's infection controls and negligent handling of contaminated linens. Hospital workers would clean all linens on the same dock where medical waste was removed, would transport both clean and dirty linens on the same carts, and store linens in hallways covered in debris from construction.

Hospital officials did not notify the families of the five victims until after a report was published on the issue. Even the head of the hospital's infection control committee told the New York Times that he was not aware of the first infant's mucomycosis at the time.

Hospital-Acquired Infections throughout the Country

About 75,000 patients die every year from infections acquired from health care facilities - and the number of deadly fungal infections is on the rise. In response, the CDC recently started a program to help hospitals communicate with the public about infections and hospital errors. Hospitals taking initiative in this effort are enjoying significant gains in public trust.

Surprisingly, mucomycosis is not on the list of diseases that hospitals must report to the government. The infection can start as a small irritation or small black spot, which later spreads into nearby areas of the body, ravaging the skin and internal tissue.

Fungi can thrive in any moist environment, including a washroom or near water sources. TLC Linen Services, which provided and maintained linens for the hospital, is located just a few blocks from a large lake in New Orleans and includes a 40,000-square-foot washing warehouse. Moldy environments or those with inadequate ventilation systems can also cause fungi to thrive and spread.

Three families of the mucomycosis victims have filed lawsuits against the hospital so far, one of which was recently settled in an undisclosed amount. Hospital linens must always be wrapped in bags or cellophane while being transported; if not, fungi and other infections can spread rapidly.

Continue reading "Deadly New Orleans Outbreak leads to Questions on Hospital Safety" »

Gynecologic Procedure now Banned by Four Top Hospitals

April 28, 2014

6842256759_0613c09bf9_b.jpgOur team of medical mistake attorneys recently reported that doctors throughout the country were calling for a ban on one popular gynecological procedure, known as morcellation. In the wake of public outcry, at least three of the nation's top hospitals have banned the procedure. Importantly, the FDA has also released a statement discouraging surgeons from using morcellation procedures.

Morcellation was generally used during hysterectomy or myomectomy procedures to treat uterine fibroids in women. The practice involved using a laparoscopic power morcellator (a medical device) to divide the uterine tissue into smaller pieces or fragments.

Now, it has become clear that about one in every 350 women who undergo this type of procedure will be diagnosed with uterine sarcoma, which is a type of uterine cancer. This is possible because uterine sarcoma hides in the fibroids that morcellation procedures are designed to break up. If such cancer cells are already present in fibroids when a morcellator divides them, the cancer cells spread into the abdomen and pelvis, significantly worsening the patient's likelihood of survival.

What makes this issue particularly frightening is that there is no reliable method for predicting whether a woman's fibroids contain cancerous cells. Because of this, the FDA is now discouraging the use of morcellators during hysterectomies and myomectomies for uterine fibroids.

This issue was brought to the forefront of public and medical attention when a prominent doctor at Beth Israel Daconess Medical Center was diagnosed with uterine sarcoma after undergoing the procedure. Her husband is a Harvard-affiliated surgeon who went public with the dire news, calling on hospitals and doctors to stop practicing morcellation.

This couple has become the driving force behind the call to ban the procedure. Two hospitals affiliated with Harvard Medical School - Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital - were the first to cease using morcellation procedures. Two more of the nation's most esteemed hospitals, the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, are the latest to suspend the use of morcellators. Temple University Hospital has also sharply limited power morcellator.

Public Safety Number One Priority

Officials at these four hospitals have gone on record saying that the public called on them to act immediately, so they did. A chairman at the Cleveland Clinic stated that the hospital will decide whether or not it will permanently ban the procedure in the upcoming months.

The FDA also plans to hold a hearing on morcellators in the coming months, which hospitals throughout the country will surely look to for guidance. Over the past ten years power morcellators have become extremely popular because they are used in less-invasive forms of hysterectomies and myomectomies. Known as laparoscopic procedures, these operations use only tiny incisions to break up fibroids instead of previous practices that left large scars and longer recoveries.

Women undergoing hysterectomies or myomectomies need to be completely aware of the risks of the procedure. Once the patient has been counselled on how the surgery will be performed, she reserves the right to request a different method or choose a different surgeon altogether. This is known as an informed-consent process.

It is important to note that there are still other ways to perform surgery on uterine fibroids using minimally-invasive techniques. Among these include vaginal hysterectomies and mini-laparotomy procedures, which do not require abdominal incisions. Temple University Hospital already designates the mini-laparotomy as its preferred uterine fibroid technique.

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Changes to Come to California Malpractice Laws

March 31, 2014

witkin-ninth-edition-ca-law_l.jpgIn 1975, the California government established a maximum money amount injured patients could receive for noneconomic damages in malpractice lawsuits. Nearly four decades later, the $250,000 cap has yet to adjust to keep up with inflation. Medical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins explore how and why California advocates are now pushing to raise the cap.

Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit public advocacy group, is organizing the campaign to raise the damage cap among other changes, which its president believes will significantly impact patient safety for the better. In addition to raising the cap, proponents are also aiming to require doctors to undergo routine drug and alcohol testing.

If the initiative qualifies, this law change will be put to California voters in November 2014. The drug testing aspect of the law change is actually a major move - nationally, physicians are much less scrutinized for this type of impairment than other high-risk professions, like firefighters or police officers. We recently wrote a post on some particularly horrendous cases of surgical malpractice in Texas, which was likely caused by the physicians' addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs.

Why Malpractice Caps at All?

Currently, 35 states have some kind of law placing a maximum on the amount of noneconomic damages patients can recover in malpractice suits. California's cap, at $250,000, is toward the lower end, and prevents many patients from ever bringing claims against hospitals or doctors who injured them at all. The costs of expert testimony and continued litigation can add up quickly, and in many cases, the costs are far too great to make a lawsuit seem worth it, so the injury case is never pursued, and the patient is left without justification or compensation for their pain and suffering.

Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that these types of noneconomic damage caps were unconstitutional. In its decision, the court argued that the caps only protected doctors and hospitals from facing responsibility for medical negligence. They said damage caps are arbitrary, unfair, and hurt the most vulnerable patients. The justices concluded that noneconomic damage caps offended the "fundamental notion of equal justice under the law."

The initiative in California would raise the damage cap to $1.1 million and will make sure that number will be able to adjust to inflation. The law would also require doctors and nurses to check patients' prescription drug histories using a state database. This is meant to identify and monitor people who "doctor shop," looking to get different prescription medications to abuse.

Continue reading "Changes to Come to California Malpractice Laws " »

Dangerous Doctors, Patient Deaths Reveal Failing Texas Healthcare System

March 11, 2014

299122118_1e0a8cdc8e.jpgDr. Christopher Duntsch arrived in Texas in 2010 to start a neurosurgery practice. By 2013, he had killed two patients from malpractice, paralyzed four others, and had his medical license revoked. Our team of medical malpractice lawyers examines this horrifying story and the problems within the Texas legislature that allowed it to happen.

Throughout the three years he was practicing in Texas, physicians, patients, and malpractice lawyers repeatedly tried to have his license suspended. Their efforts were unsuccessful for so long because of a series of conservative reforms in the Texas court and medical systems. Over the past ten years, these reforms have severely limited the resources and options available to patients injured by negligent physicians.

The medical system in Texas used to be overseen by a connected network between the state medical board, hospital management, and the courts, which prevented and punished cases of medical malpractice. This changed around 2003, when the Republican Texas Legislature set maximum dollar amounts for malpractice lawsuits at $250,000. This is problematic for many reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, but in essence the damage cap does not adequately protect patients who suffer permanent injuries from doctors like Duntsch and deters malpractice lawsuits from being filed.

Other laws were introduced that protected hospitals from being sued for the actions of their doctors. Currently, Texas law states that hospitals may only be held liable for damages if the plaintiff can prove that hospital management knew that the doctor posed an extreme risk to patients and hired them anyway. Compounding this, hospitals in Texas are allowed to keep all their information regarding doctor hiring practices completely private, so neither patients nor plaintiffs can access them.

So, with hospitals deregulated and the court system substantially curtailed, the Texas Medical Board was all that remained to police physicians and protect patients. The board, however, was established to monitor physician licenses and oversee professional standards, not in any way protect the public. The board's intention is to protect physician's rights, and does not revoke medical licenses unless there is overwhelming, inarguable evidence such as a felony conviction or dolling out opioids to addicts.

Dr. Duntsch and His Wake of Destruction

In 2010, Duntsch started a practice, the Texas Neurological Institute and worked at Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano. Another surgeon at Baylor told the Texas Observer that Duntsch was, by far, the worst surgeon he had seen, even when performing relatively minor procedures.

Reports of serious harm done to patients by Duntsch are long and illustrate consistently dangerous and unconscionable medical care. After the first few botched surgeries Baylor had to bring in senior surgeons to correct the damage done to patients, though most of it was irreparable. Duntsch even operated on a childhood friend, severely damaged his spinal cord, and delayed follow-up tests so long that his friend permanently lost the use of his arms and legs.

Duntsch was suspended for 30 days, after which he was supposed to be supervised during every surgery. This never happened; soon after the first paralysis, a woman named Kellie Martin went to Duntsch to treat back pain. Duntsch recommended a microlaminectomy, a minor surgery which removes part of the spine to relieve pain from nerve pressure.

Duntsch performed the surgery, which was supposed to take 45 minutes, unsupervised. Two hours after she went in the OR, her husband asked to speak with Duntsch, who said there had been some complications and she would have to stay the night. Another few hours later, she was rushed to the intensive care unit. Ultimately, after an excruciating wait, he and his daughters were told Kellie had died.

The medical examiner had to examine her twice because he was so shocked by the state her body was in. It was clear Duntsch severed one of her spinal arteries during surgery (as he had with his childhood friend a month prior), and failed to notice it in time to save her life. She eventually bled to death.

Continue reading "Dangerous Doctors, Patient Deaths Reveal Failing Texas Healthcare System" »

Bariatric Surgery and Children: When Weight Loss Kills

February 17, 2014

childhood-obesity-1_l.jpgThe number of overweight and obese children is rising substantially throughout the United States and the world. This, of course, is a problem in and of itself, however additional concerns are being raised about the prevalence and dangers of pediatric bariatric surgery. Medical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins take a closer look at this troubling trend and how it could impact our children.

The childhood obesity problem is most prevalent in developed countries, and rates are expected to rise even more over the next decade in affluent Middle Eastern countries. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal profiles one little boy, aged three, who currently weighs in at 61 pounds, more than twice the average for his age. He was just one year old when his parents began noticing health issues associated with his weight, including dangerously slow circulation due to pressure on his airways.

Due to his extraordinary size, his parents recently decided to have him undergo bariatric surgery. The procedure will remove part of his stomach, ideally so he will be unable to eat as much and feel satiated with lesser amounts of food. They hope that this surgery will prevent a lifetime of additional obesity-related health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, and severe sleep apnea.

Obesity in children is caused by a sedentary lifestyle (excess video games and television time, lack of physical activity) and overindulgence in unhealthy foods lacking in real nutrients. It is now a serious health problem not only in Western countries but other places, such as Saudi Arabia, where over 9% of school-aged youths are obese (about 18% of American school aged children are obese).

Weight-Loss Surgery and Children

U.S. doctors are willing to perform bariatric surgery on teenagers, however such procedures on children under the age of 13 are generally not done. In order to qualify for bariatric surgery, youths must have a BMI of 35 or higher in addition to a serious weight-related health problem. This may include diabetes, sleep apnea, increased pressure inside the skull (pseudotumo cerebri), high cholesterol/blood pressure, or severe liver inflammation.

There is a plethora of other factors doctors should consider before deciding to perform bariatric surgery on a child. Among these include:

• whether or not they have been able to lose weight on their own through diet and exercise

• whether they are finished growing

• understanding that they must be willing to follow lifestyle changes post-surgery

• use of alcohol or drugs within 12 months before surgery

If any of the above-mentioned factors were not considered before surgery, the child may suffer severe, even life-threatening complications from the procedure. Unfortunately, more and more rogue physicians are looking to cash in on this trending market by performing surgeries on children who do not qualify. Parents need to inform themselves on the general safety guidelines for bariatric surgery to avoid a devastating malpractice event.

There is now a global debate over the appropriate age for bariatric surgery. In the U.S., the youngest is typically about 14; abroad, as stated, children as young as three are undergoing the procedure. The World Health Organization points to a total lack of data on the long-term health effects of such surgeries on children, and that surgeons should err conservatively on the age spectrum.

Currently, the issue of highest concern is not the procedure itself but on how the abrupt change in nutritional consumption would affect long-term brain and sexual development. The brain critically needs the proper types and amounts of nutrients to mature properly, which also affects hormones associated with sexual maturation and cognitive functioning. There is currently no data proving weight-loss surgeries do not affect this development.

Continue reading "Bariatric Surgery and Children: When Weight Loss Kills" »

Congress to Tighten Leash on VA after Disastrous Medical Errors

February 10, 2014

6989660347_405bf398c4.jpgIn the wake of the our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA) has been innundated with a new generation of injured troops entirely different than in wars past. The changes in veteran demographic, mixed with the pre-existing American healthcare problems and an array of other factors, is causing disarray in the VA. Medical malpractice attorneys at Pintas & Mullins take a closer look into the disorder and how Congress plans to fix it.

You know something has gone terribly wrong when the least-productive Congress in U.S. history is calling foul on another government agency. Bipartisan members of Congress are launching investigations and working on remedial efforts after reports of serious and devastating problems at VA hospitals throughout the country. To have bipartisan members of Congress frustrated with the agency is extremely telling of its fundamental, deep-rooted problems.

The issues are wide-spread and affect all 1,700 VA facilities in the U.S. Among the problems, legislators are blaming lack of accountability, management errors, and restrictions on performance-based pay for the abundance of medical errors, which are devastating veterans. Congressional members are now considering and will more than likely approve penalties for the VA.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman told the Wall Street Journal that he plans to introduce legislation that will make it easier for poorly performing hospital staff to be demoted or fired. Currently, VA executives receive bonuses based almost exclusively on tenure rather than performance or contribution.

Needless Deaths of our Veterans

Much of the Congressional uproar is in response to an influx of media coverage of the dire, often fatal conditions at VA hospitals in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and South Carolina to name just three. CNN recently published a story on several patient deaths at the Dorn VA Medical Center in South Carolina and the Charlie Norwood Medical Facility in Georgia. CNN reporters investigated the facilities after it became clear that dozens of patients were dying of cancer due to delayed or flat-out denied care.

The report noted that thousands of veterans at these two facilities alone were being forced to wait several months even for routine screening tests such as colonoscopies - within some waiting lists going back as far as 2010. To say this is unacceptable is a dire understatement. Making matters worse, those in charge of these facilities were wholly unable to report remedy and disciplinary action for the backlogs.

VA facilities function differently than traditional privatized hospitals and healthcare clinics. As with any other government agency, the environment within the facilities is extremely enclosed and nepotistic. Inadequate employees are rarely fired; the worst that happens is a transfer to another VA facility, where the cycle of negligence merely continues without discipline or consequence. Additionally, many do not realize that the VA in its entirety is paid for by the American public through taxes.

Among its aims, Congress will explicitly examine each VA executive's history of contribution, action and capabilities. The VA system cares for about 8.75 million patients - from WWII vets to teenagers coming back from Afghanistan - with an annual budget of over $145 billion. There are no current discussions surrounding cuts to this massive budget, only of the VA's performance and lack thereof.

Continue reading "Congress to Tighten Leash on VA after Disastrous Medical Errors " »

What Fuels Medical Mistakes

January 8, 2014

4727573126_7418a98c6f.jpgAs a law firm specializing in medical malpractice and mistakes, we see firsthand the traumatic and often catastrophic results of malpractice, and its effects on victims' families. Our passion for this field translates into great interest into how and why these mistakes are made in the first place, and what malpractice attorneys and plaintiffs as a community can do to prevent them.

Though much ink has been spilled on this topic, we recently came across an article in the esteemed British Medical Journal (BMJ), in which the author asserts that evidenced-based medicine is damaged. Evidence-based medicine is heralded in the U.S. as the solution to medical malpractice reform. In theory, it sounds ideal: in order to minimize medical errors, physicians should apply therapeutic principals rooted in scientific and medical research when diagnosing and treating patients.

The reality, of course, is much more complex, varied, and as many argue, broken. The BMJ author declares that drug manufacturers have figured out how to manipulate this evidence-based system to their advantage, conducting research trials as opportunities to tout unnecessary drugs. Once these trials produce "evidence," that certain drugs help certain patients at certain times, physicians are forced to comply, often to the rapid demise of their patients' health.

Overdiagnosis, Overtreatment

Truth be told, the drug industry funds (and therefore controls) the majority of medical research, which leads to massive overdiagnosing and overmedicating. This, many doctors believe, is what is truly fueling medical mistakes in American health centers. Our societal dependence on prescription drugs is immense and steadily increasing. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nine out of ten adults in the U.S. report using at least one prescription drug in the past month.

That clinical research is corrupted by the drug industry doesn't make national headlines like egregious medical malpractice lawsuits do, but it is the driving force behind such cases. In order to remedy this, we have to first understand and accept that it is happening, and direct energy toward changing what is broken.

Medical researchers need to focus on what desperately needs to be studied - natural history of diseases, diagnostic criteria, long-term efficacy and safety of drugs. Conversely, we also need to urge researchers, philanthropic organizations, and government officials to tighten regulation of competing interests, predetermined agendas, and Big Pharma influence.

Complex Patient, Understaffed Hospitals

Another major problem affecting every subset of our healthcare system is overworked, underpaid nurses and medical assistants. An article recently published on ProPublica, written by a Harvard Medical School graduate and internal medicine resident, illuminates how difficult it is to keep patients with complex conditions safe in hospitals. The author's mother died of breast cancer after six months in a nationally-ranked hospital, during which time she witnessed a slew of medical mistakes and incidents that hastened her mother's death.

She asserts that, most often, injuries from medical mistakes are not the result of negligence, but of critical information falling through the cracks. Things like medication errors, nutritional regimens, and falls are often caused by seemingly minor incidences, like handoffs between nursing shifts, nearly identical labeling and drug names, and lack of fail-safe systems.

In a word, the author believes complexity is the problem plaguing our health system. As medical advances save and improve lives, it is also creating an influx of new medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and treatments; there are just too many layers to manage, and overbooking physicians is only exacerbating the problem.

How to Help

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Uterine Growth Removal Procedure under Scrutiny for Cancer Risk

December 30, 2013

8759177830_2ecb0f9160.jpgThree U.S. teaching hospitals are now examining the safety of a popular surgery to remove uterine growths after reports that the procedure could spread cancer in high rates. Two esteemed hospitals in Boston, along with the Cleveland Clinic, plan to better inform patients of this risk. Medical negligence attorneys at Pintas & Mullins remind women undergoing these types of procedures that they must always be adequately informed of all risks before they consent to a surgery.

The procedure, known as uterine fibroid surgery, is recommended for patients diagnosed with noncancerous growths in the uterus. It is estimated that about three out of four women will experience these types of growths (fibroids) in their lifetime, some without ever realizing it. By themselves, uterine fibroids do not cause cancer and are easily manageable. In a specific subset of patients, however, the symptoms (pain, bleeding) interfere with health to such an extent that surgery is necessary.

Uterine growth procedures are minimally invasive, typically performed laparoscopicly. The number of these types of surgeries has skyrocketed over the past decade, often with positive results. For some women, however, the procedures have turned disastrous and even fatal, because it significantly increases the risk of cancer spreading into the abdomen.

In some women, undetectable cancer cells proliferate in these uterine growths and can spread into the abdomen during or after laparoscopic surgery. This is due to the nature of the surgery, which requires surgeons to "grind" the growths down into small pieces so they are more easily removed. Thus, the cancer cells release into the abdomen and uterus, making the potential for full-blown cancer more likely.

Making matters worse, physicians are currently unable to test the fibroids to determine if the growths are cancerous before the procedure and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists explicitly notes that there are not guidelines for how physicians should inform patients of this risk.

Why Women aren't Being Warned

In a study involving 30,000 patients, researchers determined that about one in every 415 women who undergo this procedure have undetected cancerous fibroids. Prior to these findings, which will be published in the New England Journal of Medicine, physicians believed the risk to be much lower - about one in 10,000 - and were therefore understating the actual risks to patients.

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One of Six American Deaths Caused by Preventable Hospital Error

December 16, 2013

4726929163_1dc2a8fd75.jpgHealth experts estimate that an alarming number of patients in the U.S. - about 440,000 per year, to be exact - die from medical errors in the hospital. That amounts to about one-sixth of all deaths nationally, and the third leading cause of death overall. Our team of medical malpractice attorneys examines how this could be so in a country so touted for medical advancement.

According to a recent article by the New York Times, the number of patients seriously injured (but not killed) by medical negligence is 10 to 20 times higher than 440,000. The author of that article suggests that the most surefire way to heighten hospital safety is to make information and records more transparent. She affirms that hospitals began tracking safety errors in 2000, and in 2003 the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services started collecting hospital safety information.

The website Hospital Compare lists much of this information, and most states run similar websites. Other websites and advocate groups that rank or publish hospital safety information include the U.S. News Best Hospitals, Consumer Reports, and Leapfrog Group.

Among the information that can be mined from these sites include rates of surgical site infection, drug-resistant bacteria infection (such as C.diff), and bedsore and blood clot rates. There is also, however, a significant dearth of information, which is worrisome to say the least, and confirms that hospitals are not comprehensively reporting their data on preventable errors and medical mistake.

The American healthcare system is hotly contested in all its factions, as it affects the lives of everyone in this country: young and old, sick and healthy, rich and poor. The politics in this issue are omnipresent and intrinsic in understanding how and why the reporting system is so colluded. Enter: the National Quality Forum, a federal organization established in 1999 that is influenced by hospital lobbyists just as Congress is. Consumer representatives of National Forum committees told the Times that they are rolled over by lobbyists and hospital administrators "constantly" in deciding core reporting requirements and other issues.

For example, Hospital Compare no longer provides information on surgical instruments left in patients after procedures, or frequencies of air embolism. About 27 states now require public report of hospital-acquired infection rates, however, this is the only government-mandated safety information required, leaving much buried beneath the surface.

Proving Fault in Hospital Error Lawsuits

When medical negligence directly causes serious patient injury or death, a lawsuit is the most efficient and effective way to ensure the hospital corrects the inadequacies that led to the error. Lawsuits may only be filed, however, if it can be proven that the physicians or hospital staff failed to meet the standard level of care in your treatment.

To prove negligence it must be demonstrated that the physician/hospital's conduct fell substantially below the general medical standard of care. This medical standard can be established through testimony by a medical expert practicing in the same field (for example, if the lawsuit is being brought against an OB/GYN, the testimony of another obstetrician or gynecologist from a different hospital would be acceptable).

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Veterans Affairs Spends $845 Million on Malpractice Claims over Past Decade

November 15, 2013

6348524704_1572a02c0e.jpgA recently-released analysis by the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA) showed that the agency paid about $845 million in medical malpractice payments since 2003. This amount of money was paid to over 4,400 veterans who were injured through medical negligence. Medical malpractice attorneys at Pintas & Mullins frequently work on behalf of injured veterans, and know just how damaging the effects of malpractice can be, and that no amount of money can make the victim whole again.

In 2012 alone, the VA settled over 450 cases, totaling more than $98 million. This number is causing Congress, medical experts and public watchdog groups to question whether the VA is learning from its mistakes and improving its practices accordingly. Over the past decade the VA has not enacted or even proposed a major reform program within its hospital systems.

Stories of Fatal Neglect

Dayton Daily News dug deeper into the issue, speaking to families of injured veterans and reporting on their stories (the article may be found here). Among their stories include a 20-year-old who was admitted to a VA hospital for a routine tooth extraction and left in a wheelchair, paralyzed and unable to speak. Another family watched their loved one, a Vietnam War veteran, die of cancer after VA doctors missed the diagnosis several times over three years.

The VA hospital network is one of the largest in the nation - in 2012, it treated about 6.3 million veterans. When malpractice claims are made, the VA settles financially with about a quarter of them (private U.S. hospitals pay out about 20% of claims).

One of the highest recent VA payouts was awarded to the family of a retired Air Force captain, who flew B-52s in the Vietnam War. He was admitted to the Atlanta VA to undergo treatment for a heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). During laser surgery, doctors accidentally punctured his heart, though fortunately he survived and was released shortly after.

In the ensuing months he was hospitalized several times due to dizziness and was prescribed numerous medications. During his last ER visit it became clear his organs were failing, and his heart continued to lead blood, requiring emergency surgery. His wife asked for an autopsy and requested the hospital launch an internal investigation. After the investigation and subsequent lawsuits, the hospital admitted he died from neglect, and settled with his family for $300,000.

How VA Lawsuits Differ

Malpractice lawsuits against the VA hospitals differ in many ways from lawsuits against private hospitals in several ways because the VA is a federal department. In more traditional suits against private hospitals, plaintiffs can hold individual physicians, nurses or other administrators liable for negligence. At the VA that is not possible. Plaintiffs must sue the entire hospital or not at all; individual employees cannot be sued.

At the same time, VA hospital personnel are consistently given pay raises and transfers even if their conduct has resulted in serious injury or malpractice claims. A federal report confirmed that, in 2011, the VA awarded performance bonuses and awards in the amount of $160 million to staffs without properly associating the bonuses with esteemed performance. Many of the bonuses even went to administrators who oversaw massive adverse events at their respective hospitals, including fatal outbreaks of Legionnaires disease, veteran suicides, and sterilization oversights.

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