Chicago hospital investigated for unnecessary throat surgeries

Medical malpractice cases in Chicago usually do not involve federal agents, doctors wearing a wire or criminal charges. But the staff of a for-profit Chicago hospital is dealing with a FBI investigation after allegations arose that surgeons were using their patients as cash cows by performing unnecessary surgeries on them, a particularly sinister form of medical malpractice if true.

It appears that the FBI got involved after concerns arose about the number of patients receiving tracheotomies at Sacred Heart Hospital and the mortality rate of those patients. For example, one surgeon performed 28 tracheotomies, a procedure to open a hole in the throat to allow a suffocating patient to breathe, between early 2010 and January 2013. Five of those patients died within two weeks, which is three times to usual rate in Illinois.

Particularly troubling is the allegation that doctors were ordering excessive anesthesia to patients to depress their breathing in order to justify the procedures and collect higher fees from Medicare. The federal program pays as much as $160,000 for a tracheotomy.

Based on conversations secretly recorded by a doctor and two administrators, the FBI says that Sacred Heart’s owner has referred to tracheotomies as the hospital’s “biggest money-maker” and told the facility’s pulmonologist, or breathing specialist, to “provide two more tracheotomy cases … soon.” The pulmonolgist, in turn, allegedly ordered an ICU nurse to “snow” a patient, or sedate him or her so heavily that only the whites of the eyes would be visible.

It is unclear how many patients may have had their lives shortened by exposure to excessive sedation, infections related to the tracheotomies or other complications.

Source: Bloomberg, “FBI: Chicago hospital kept patients too sedated to breathe on their own, then ordered unneeded tracheotomies for them, reaping $160,000 from Medicare per case,” Charles R. Babcock, June 16, 2013


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