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Long Island's Mercy Medical Center Faces Scrutiny Following Patient Deaths

Feb 11, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Mercy Medical Center, a Long Island, New York hospital, is facing tough questions after a doctor there charged that the deaths of several patients were caused by medical mistakes made by a Physicians Assistant (PA) employed by the hospital.  The physician has claimed that the administration at Mercy Medical Center disciplined him after he contacted health officials about the patient deaths.  The ensuing investigation into the Mercy Medical Center deaths have many wondering if Mercy Medical Center is looking to profit by having non-MDs, like PAs, handle surgical procedures.

The New York State Department of Health recently confirmed to the New York Times that it was investigating Mercy Medical Center.  "We are investigating a series of deaths at Mercy Medical Center that raise questions about appropriate patient care and quality of care," Claudia Hutton, spokeswoman for the Health Department, responded.

The investigation at Mercy Medical Center was spurred by complaints from Anthony Colantonio, MD.  Colantonio alleges that a PA has improperly inserted catheters, chest tubes, and pacemakers into patients, resulting in the deaths of several people.  In one case, the PA placed a central venous line in the chest of a 19-year-old woman after she arrived at the ICU for breathing problems.  The PA punctured her lung and then inserted a chest tube in an effort to inflate the lung.  A chest surgeon was not called into correct the problem until 48 hours later. Despite surgery on the woman's collapsed lung, she died about 12 days later.  Another patient, a 65-year-old man, developed an infection from an improperly placed catheter and died last July.   A 64-year-old woman died in August, about two weeks after the attempted placement of a vein catheter.  The PA allegedly punctured her neck, filling it with blood.  In another case, a woman died a week ago after the PA "wrongly inserted" a pacemaker.

Colantonio complained to several health and law-enforcement agencies that the PA did not receive permission to insert the catheters.  Colantonio advised the state Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC), the Health Department’s disciplinary arm, that the PA practiced "with little or no supervision," used "poor judgment," and had "substandard technical skills."  Colantonio said for months he warned top medical officials at Mercy that the PA "was a disaster waiting to happen."  "In my opinion, those patients were assaulted," he said. In response, Mercy Medical Center brought Colantonio up on disciplinary charges, alleging he has "problems with interpersonal relationships" in the ICU and his complaints are "disruptive."

The PA involved was licensed in 1996 and worked at Mercy for nearly four years. A hospital spokesperson told the New York Times that “there have been no instances in which the actions of a physician assistant have been material to the death of a patient at Mercy."

PAs require a bachelor's degree, including two years of classroom and clinical training, and must pass a national certifying exam.  PAs are certified to perform many of the tasks an MD can, including taking medical histories, performing physical exams, and ordering and interpreting lab or X-ray tests.

Not all of the deaths at Mercy Medical Center have been related to the PA’s mistakes.  Recently, doctors at Mercy Medical Center told a young woman that cancer was detected in her left breast.  The woman underwent a double mastectomy on May 25th and died May 26th of complications from the surgery.  She did not have cancer; according to the State Department of Health.   Rather, Mercy Medical Center’s lab mixed up her test results. In October, the Health Department concluded Mercy Medical Center took proper “corrective action”.    

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1999 concluded that medical errors killed 44,000 to 98,000 people a year in the U.S.

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