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Nurses Face Jail Time For Reporting An Unethical Physician

Although I have criticized state medical boards for not doing enough to protect patients from physicians who practice pseudoscientific medicine and quackery, they do nonetheless serve a purpose. Moreover, critical to medical boards doing even the limited amount of enforcement that they do is the ability of health care providers or other citizens to submit anonymous complaints against physicians who are not practicing up to the standard of care or who may be in other ways taking advantage of patients.

Unfortunately, the other day I found out about a very disturbing case in Kermit, Texas. Two nurses who were dismayed and disturbed by a physician peddling all manner of herbal supplements reported him to the authorities. Now, they are facing jail:

In a stunning display of good ol’ boy idiocy and abuse of prosecutorial discretion, two West Texas nurses have been fired from their jobs and indicted with a third-degree felony carrying potential penalties of two-to-ten years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of $10,000. Why? Because they exercised a basic tenet of the nurse’s Code of Ethics — the duty to advocate for the health and safety of their patients.

The nurses, in their 50s and both members of the American Nurses Association/Texas Nurses Association, reported concerns about a doctor practicing at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit. They were unamused by his improperly encouraging patients in the hospital emergency department and in the rural health clinic to buy his own herbal “medicines,” and they thought it improper for him to take hospital supplies to perform a procedure at a patient’s home rather than in the hospital. (The doctor did not succeed, as reportedly he was stopped by the hospital chief of staff.)

How can this be? This is how:

The nurses Vicki Galle, RN, and Anne Mitchell, RN, say they were just trying to protect patients when they anonymously reported their concerns April 7 to the Texas Medical Board (TMB). The RNs believed a physician wasn’t living up to ethical practice standards at the 15-bed county hospital where they worked.

The report indicated Rolando Arafiles, MD, one of three physicians on contract with the hospital, improperly encouraged patients at the Winkler County Memorial Hospital emergency department and the county’s rural health clinic to buy herbal supplements from him.

However, because the two nurses worked for a county hospital – and included medical record numbers of the patients in their letter to the TMB in April – the county attorney’s office indicted them on “misuse of official information” – a third-degree felony that carries potential penalties of 2-10 years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of $10,000. Additionally, the prosecution asserts the nurses used patient records as part of the evidence they offered to the TMB to “harass or annoy” Arafiles.

Part of what’s so disturbing about this is that complaints to the medical board are supposed to be confidential. Indeed, this sort of retaliation is exactly why such complaints are confidential. Why do I say “retaliation”? Well, certainly there is the suspicious timing of how they were arrested:

Mitchell and Galle, both long-time nurses at the facility, were fired from their positions and were subsequently arrested June 12, just 5 days past the 60-day window that could have been part of the defense to prove retaliation. The two nurses are free on bond of $5,000 each.

Gee, you don’t think that timing was intentional, do you? If that’s not enough, take a look at this account:

The nurses went up their chain of command with their complaints. They got nowhere with their 25-bed rural hospital. So they anonymously turned the doctor into the Texas Medical Board using six medical record numbers of the involved hospital patients .

When the medical board notified the physician that he was under investigation for mistreatment and poor quality of care, he filed a harassment complaint with the Winkler County Sheriff’s Department.

To find out who made the anonymous complaint, the sheriff left no stone unturned. He interviewed all of the patients whose medical record case numbers were listed in the report and asked the hospital to identify who would have had access to the patient records in question.

At some point, the sheriff obtained a copy of the anonymous complaint and used the description of a “female over 50″ to narrow the potential complainants to the two nurses. He then got a search warrant to seize their work computers and found a copy of the letter to the medical board on one of them.

So let’s get this straight. Two nurses, alarmed that a physician was inappropriately peddling herbal remedies that he sells to patients in the emergency room of a small rural hospital in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, try to report him through the chain of command. From here on out, I’m going to try to read between the lines a bit, but I bet my speculation is not too far from the truth. My guess is that Dr. Arafiles is probably either popular or desperately needed in Kermit–or both–and that he’s well-connected in the town. Well, actually, that last part is almost certainly true, as apparently Dr. Arafiles is buddies with the Sheriff (Robert Roberts) and–who knows?–probably Winkler County Attorney Scott Tidwell as well for all we know. The Sheriff, tipped off by his buddy that someone at the hospital was complaining about his questionable choice of venue to peddle his herbal woo, went after Mitchell and Galle as though they had gone on a four county shooting spree and and then, after he figured out who they were, threw the book at them, even though they had no justification in doing so:

The Texas Medical Board sent a letter to the attorneys stating that it is improper to criminally prosecute people for raising complaints with the board; that the complaints were confidential and not subject to subpoena; that the board is exempt from federal HIPAA law; and that, on the contrary, the board depends on reporting from health care professionals to carry out its duty of protecting the public from improper practitioners.

Excerpts from this letter include:

  • Information provided by an individual to the board… is information used by the Board in its governmental capacity as a state agency…Information provided triggering  a  complaint or furthering and investigation by the Board is information provided for a governmental purpose – the regulation of the practice of medicine.
  • …under federal law, the TMB is exempt from the [HIPAA] requirements; therefore, the provision of medical documentation with patient names on them to the Board is not a violation of [HIPAA].

And it’s true. In order to encourage whistleblowing and minimize the chances of retaliation, HIPAA rules don’t apply to complaints to state medical boards. Regardless of the merit of Mitchell and Galle’s complaint, they were well within their rights to report Dr Arafiles to the Texas Medical Board. It doesn’t matter whether they had first gone through the chain of command or not, regardless of what hospital flunkies or apologists for the sheriff say.

This case is bad. Real bad. Nurses and other health care professionals are reluctant enough as it is to report a bad doctor or a doctor peddling dubious therapies as it is. What makes this case particularly outrageous is not only because it appears to be a horrible abuse of power by Sheriff Roberts, but, even worse, it sends the clear and unmistakable message to nurses in Texas: Don’t get out of line or the medical powers that bewill make you pay. They will find out who you are, no matter what it takes to do so, and then they will do everything in their power to retaliate. They’ll even try to throw you in jail if they can figure out a rationale to do so, legal or not. It’s hard enough to go against a doctor as it is, particularly in small towns, where doctors are often considered pillars of the community, making it hard enough to risk the disapproval that would be likely to be directed at any whistleblower. Without legal protections against prosecution for reporting a doctor to the board, confidentiality means nothing if there is someone in a position of power who is determined enough to shred the confidentiality of the complaint (like a county sheriff) and apparently ready to abuse his power to retaliate against the nurses making the complaints.

Even though I’m a bit late to the game, it disgusted me to read about this case. If we are to protect the public from physician misconduct, be it quackery, breaches of ethics, inappropriate sexual behavior, fraud, or whatever, there must be protections for the complainants against retaliation by hospitals or whomever. Quite correctly, the Texas Nurse’s Association is fully backing Mitchell and Galle, and Mitchell and Galle are also filing a civil lawsuit in federal court against the hospital (Winkler County Memorial Hospital), the county attorney, and the sheriff. The complaint alleges:

Specifically, Winkler County had a policy to prohibit any adverse report without first getting the approval of the Board of Control of Winkler County Memorial Hospital and the Medical Staff. This discouraged employees from publicly reporting matters of public concern regarding patient safety and patients’ health and welfare as to how they were being treated that would cast Winkler County or Winkler County Memorial Hospital or Rolando G. Arafiles, Jr. in a negative light.

This sort of miscarriage of justice should not be allowed to stand. TheTexas Nurses Association has set up a legal defense fund for these nurses (a link is on the TNA home page), and I urger SBM readers to contribute. I have. I also encourage SBM readers to write polite letters of protest to the Winkler County District Attorney’s Office. It is a travesty that this retaliation against nurses just trying to do their duty for their patients has been allowed to continue this long and this far. We should do whatever we can to make sure that this pure power play to put a couple of uppity nurses back in their place does not stand.

The Friday Funny: Science Versus Pseudoscience

I know this one’s been floating around the blogosphere for a while, but it finally made its way to me at a time when I needed something lighthearted and amusing (warning: some profanity and at least one use of the “F” word):

Best quotes:

“Well, science doesn’t know everything.” Well, science knows it doesn’t know anything, otherwise it would stop … But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairytale most appeals to you.”

…”nutritionist” isn’t a protected term. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. “Dietitician” is the legally protected term. “Dietician” is like dentist, and “nutritionist” is like tootheologist.”

“I’m sorry if you’re into homeopathy. It’s water. How often does it need to be said? It’s just water. You’re healing yourself. Why don’t you give yourself the credit?

I just wish more comics did routines like this. Sometimes humor can get the message through where analysis can’t.

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

The Friday Funny: (Video) The Dietary Advice Racket

First, Mitchell and Webb took on homeopathy. This week, it’s bogus (word choice intentional) “nutritionists“:


*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

The Oprah-fication Of Medicine

OprahUnfortunately, a frequent topic on SBM has been the anti-vaccine movement, personified these days by celebrity spokesmodel for Generation Rescue Jenny McCarthy and her  boyfriend comedian and actor Jim Carrey. Unfortunately, it is a topic that is unlikely to go away. We’ve all speculated why the anti-scientific emotion-based notion that vaccines somehow must cause autism persists in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary, but I think the question goes much deeper than that because it’s not just about vaccines. The anti-vaccine movement is but one of the most visible components of a much deeper problem in our public discourse, a problem that values feelings and personal experience over evidence, compelling stories and anecdotes over science.

I’m referring to the Oprah-fication of medicine in America.

Why Oprah? you may ask. I’m happy to tell you. Oprah Winfrey has been the host of the highest rated syndicated talk show in television history, her self-named The Oprah Winfrey Show. The show has been running for nearly 23 years, with over 3,000 episodes. Winfrey is so famous that she is one of those rare celebrities who is known instantly by just her first name. Say “Oprah,” and virtually everyone will know to whom you’re referring, and her show is often colloquially known as simply Oprah. Given this unprecedented level of success, which has made Oprah a billionaire and a ubiquitous presence on TV, her own magazine, her own satellite radio station, and, soon, her own cable channel, Oprah has developed a media empire that few single individuals can match or beat. Indeed Rupert Murdoch is the only person that I can think of who likely has a wider reach than Oprah. Personally, I have no problem with Oprah’s level of success. Clearly, she is a very talented and savvy TV host and businesswoman.

Unfortunately, in marked contrast, Oprah has about as close to no critical thinking skills when it comes to science and medicine as I’ve ever seen, and she uses the vast power and influence her TV show and media empire give her in order to subject the world to her special brand of mystical New Age thinking and belief in various forms of what can only be characterized as dubious medical therapies at best and quackery at worst. Arguably there is no single person in the world with more influence pushing woo than Oprah. Indeed, she puts Prince Charles to shame, and Kevin Trudeau is a mere ant compared to the juggernaught that is Oprah Winfrey’s media empire. No one even comes close. No one, and I mean no one, brings pseudoscience, quackery, and antivaccine madness to more people than Oprah Winfrey does every week. (She doesn’t discuss such topics every day, but it seems that at least once a week she does.) Naturally, Oprah doesn’t see it that way and likely no one could ever convince her of the malign effect she has on the national zeitgeist with respect to science and medicine, but that’s exactly what she does. Consequently, whether fair or unfair, she represents the perfect face to put on the problem that we supporters of science-based medicine face when trying to get the message out to the average reader about unscientific medical practices, and that’s why I am referring to the pervasiveness of pseudoscience infiltrating medicine as the “Oprah-fication” of medicine.

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*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

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