Welcome to the year-end edition of Investigative Roundup. From traditional news outlets to chart-topping podcasts, it’s been a busy year for medical investigations.
At MedPage Today, we’ve been occupied with coverage of California’s “Death Certificate Project” and our “States of Disgrace” series, in partnership with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, on bad doctors and the lax state laws that allow them to continue practicing.
Here are some other reports of note that came to light this year:
Kidnapped by the Mayo Clinic?
This summer, CNN published a two-part series on the story of Alyssa Gilderhus, an 18-year-old who was successfully treated for a brain aneurysm at the Mayo Clinic. But her family then quickly came into conflict with members of the rehabilitation care team (her mother was banned from the premises at one point for what Mayo said was “disruptive” and “aggressive” behavior that had staff fearing for their safety).
When the family was told they couldn’t have Alyssa transferred to a different hospital — Mayo tried for legal guardianship at one point — they hatched an “escape” plan. CNN posted dramatic footage of the family getting Alyssa into their car, with Mayo nurses yelling and trying to pull her back, after staff brought her out believing Alyssa’s frail grandmother had come to say hello.
In the Mayo Clinic’s statement countering the family’s narrative, they said their concern was over the safety of the patient and pointed to a court-ordered removal of children from the home of Alyssa’s mother. They said they were “shocked and saddened” by CNN’s story and, “While we knew the reporter was focused on a pre-determined narrative, the information we provided should have helped them see that their premise was inaccurate.”
Door Closes on Dr. Death
This year, almost anyone interested in true crime and medical malpractice heard what GQ magazine called “the scariest podcast of the year” — Dr. Death.
In the immensely popular series, health and science writer Laura Beil examined former Texas neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch’s string of botched surgeries that resulted in patient injury and death. Some of the details are particularly gruesome, like how he repeatedly drilled into the muscle of one patient, an elderly woman who lost a third of her blood and can no longer use her legs, or how he gave his best friend an elective neck operation that resulted in paralysis.
All together, 32 victims suffered under the hands of Christopher Duntsch. Dr. Death tells their stories and looks at Duntsch’s alleged penchant for drugs and alcohol as well as his elaborate lies and affairs.
Spoiler alert for those who haven’t listened: In 2017, Duntsch was sentenced to life in prison, and he’s likely to remain there after losing an appeal earlier this month. Want to listen? The production company’s website gives instructions.
‘Houston, We Have a Heart, Liver, and Lung Problem’
Throughout 2018, ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle took Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston to task for the poor outcomes and high complication rates in its heart transplant program. For bypass quality, Baylor received a dubious one-star rating from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cut off funding for the heart program earlier this year. The hospital system responded by replacing their surgical director and hiring two cardiac surgeons to fill leadership posts.
But heart troubles weren’t the only worries for Baylor St. Luke’s. Further investigations also uncovered issues in their liver and lung transplant programs:
- 15 of 85 patients who received a liver transplant in 2017 died
- 7 of 54 lung transplant patients died within a year
Most recently, the ProPublica and Houston Chronicle series detailed a new lawsuit from the family of a man who died during heart surgery. They had received an anonymous letter claiming the surgeon performing the man’s operation was incompetent and had “mishap, after mishap.”
Famous Nutrition Researcher Resigns
Former head of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, Brian Wansink, PhD, didn’t have a great 2018, as 17 of his papers were retracted earlier this year — six from JAMA alone.
In February, BuzzFeed reported on e-mails that showed Wansink’s push to create and publish studies based on shoddy research that would perhaps find success with the public and funders.
An internal review by Cornell University found that “Professor Wansink committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”
Wansink submitted his letter of resignation and will leave his position on June 30, 2019.
Top Cancer Researcher’s Fall From Grace
José Baselga, MD, a top breast cancer researcher and now former chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, became embroiled in controversy after the New York Times and ProPublica released a report saying he failed to disclose industry ties in “60% of the nearly 180 papers he had published since 2013. That figure increased each year — he did not disclose any relationships in 87% of the journal articles that he co-wrote last year.”
Baselga received huge sums from big pharma companies, including $3 million from Roche alone since 2014. His relationships with start-ups testing cancer treatments attracted suspicion as well, and the investigation suggested he spun clinical trial results to favor companies he was attached to. Most recently, he stepped down as editor in chief of the journal Cancer Discovery, which is published by the American Association for Cancer Research.
In his resignation letter from Sloan Kettering, Baselga expressed hope that his circumstance would “inspire a doubling down on transparency in our field.”