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Sunday, March 8, 2009

With significant potential financial gain: Unnecessary cardiac surgery

Father John Corapi went to Dr. M. for a diagnosis, and the doctor recommended surgery. Father Corapi then got second, third, fourth and fifth opinions, all of which disagreed with Dr. M.'s diagnosis and recommendation for cardiac surgery. He was so struck by these additional opinions that he went to the FBI.

The FBI performed a three-month investigation, interviewing medical staff at the local medical center in California, other patients of Dr. M., some of his colleagues, Dr. Gerald Rogan, and outside cardiologists as far away as the Cleveland Clinic. The FBI produced a 67-page affidavit that led to a search warrant authorizing an FBI raid on Dr. M.'s office. The affidavit contained a description of Dr. M.'s interaction with patients: the doctor bullied patients, and scared them. He would consistently tell patients, many of whom had ambiguous symptoms and no history of coronary disease, that he needed to perform an angiogram to determine whether the patient required invasive treatment. (An angiogram is a diagnostic test that takes X-ray pictures of the heart arteries, highlighted by an injected dye, via a soft catheter tube that the surgeon threads into the heart from an incision in the patient's groin. )

If the angiogram failed to document treatable disease, or as was frequently the case with Dr. M., was unreadable, he would perform an intravascular ultrasound, which at the time was new, and unfamiliar to many cardiologists. By improperly setting the gain on the ultrasound too high, Dr. M. guaranteed the appearance but not the reality of significant arterial blockages. Dr. M. would then lean over the supine patient and tell him in dire tones that without immediate bypass surgery, he would die. In such a stressful situation, few patients were sufficiently confident, rational, or sophisticated to ask for a second opinion. For the few who did, Dr. M. typically referred the patient to another doctor in his practice, who would confirm the diagnosis, relying on Dr. M.'s recommendation, and perform the surgery.

The California Medical Board sought a restraining order against the two doctors, finding that:

"Both have fraudulently misrepresented the findings of tests to induce and/or scare patients into having unnecessary surgeries or interventions. At best, this can be viewed as incompetent and/or grossly negligent as well as dishonest and corrupt. [They] misled, lied to or attempted to frighten patients into consenting to invasive coronary surgical procedures, at significant risk to the patient and with significant potential financial gain."

Advice: Work to reform the payment system that rewards unscrupulous doctors for unnecessary and dangerous surgery.

Read another story about unnecessary bypass surgery.

Thanks to Drs. Gerald Rogan, Frank Sebat and Ian Grady for the source, Disaster Analysis Redding Medical Center Congressional Report, June 1, 2008, and to Helen Haskell.

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