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Subbing Out Surgeons

There is a lot of talk in the world of patient safety about the need for patients to have access to information about their medical providers. The idea is that if a doctor’s (or hospital’s) track record is accessible and easily understandable, then medical patients will make informed choices about where to receive care. Professionals that are less capable, the idea goes, would be forced to improve or risk going out of business.

Of course, this idea is incredibly important for patients, because beyond the system-wide effects, it means that they will receive care from a professional who they believe they can trust and whose track record they have investigated. After all, it seems obvious that patient who are going under anesthesia and otherwise placing their lives at the mercy of another, would want to know the quality of care that the individual.

However, a Chicago Tribune article from last month explains how there is still one problem related to this choice of doctor idea that has many patients upset–subbing of surgeons. It is not uncommon for patients to carefully vet their doctors so that they feel comfortable knowing who is performing the operation only to find that it was actually a different doctor that performed the operation.

In some cases this substitution is for legitimate, unavoidable reason. However, a few advocates are arguing that there are many other cases that are not legitimate and instead represent a “bait and switch.” In those cases, some claim, patients agree to a procedure thinking that a (usually high-profile) surgeon will perform the operation, even though the surgeon does not actually perform the operation. These are sometimes referred to as “ghost surgeries.”

Ghost Surgeries & The Law
As a legal matter, the substitution of a surgeon alone is unlikely to be a cause for malpractice. That is because actual negligence (and harm) must be shown. However, there are many instances where patients were victims of malpractice who discovered during investigations into the case that the surgeon they thought performed the operation did not actually do so.

For example, the Tribune article explains the case of one woman who filed a medical malpractice suit after having her heart damaged in a cardiac surgery. She thought that the procedure was being performed by a well-known triple board certified cardiologist. It wasn’t. Instead, the operation was actually performed by a far less experienced professional. She quipped on the situation, “I sought the rock star, and I got the opening act.”

A few recent lawsuits have been filed in the Chicago area involving claim of unauthorized doctor-swapping. However, it is difficult to be successful in those cases barring actual injury–trust violations notwithstanding. But that is not stopping many patients rights advocates from standing up and seeking accountability. One noted that the problem of ghost surgeries is “alarming and disconcerting on so many levels, not just from a medical or legal standpoint, but from a trust and ethical standpoint.”

The attorneys at our firm believe strongly that openness and honesty are a crucial part of the caregiving process. These sorts of swaps, when done improperly are incredibly disturbing.

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