Sunday, November 2, 2008

Medical Blunder and its Aftermath

We faced this situation while in India last month: How to react when a dedicated and otherwise competent doctor makes a grave mistake that puts the life of your loved one in limbo?

Our spirits were high on October 1st. It had been almost nine days since my father-in-law (Daddy's) emergency surgery for a ruptured duodenal ulcer. Anita had joined me in Pune, and my mother-in-law (Mummy) was also doing well in an adjacent private ward in the same Inlaks Hospital. Both were to be sent home the following day.

Daddy's surgeon Dr. P had said that the first 6-7 days were the most critical in Daddy's case. This is because the sutures to repair the large perforation of the duodenum are very vulnerable to the strong acids in the stomach, and can typically give out by day 6. If they hold past that, then the prognosis is very good. Daddy was now past that critical period. He had some problems with cough, pneumonia and weakness following the surgery, but this was under control and considered normal for someone of his age who was inactive after a major surgery.

Daddy's IV lines were removed and similar preparations were made for his urinary catheter as well. Dr. P came in and removed the external staples that had held Daddy's almost 2 feet long abdominal incision together. He then urged Daddy to try and resume normal activities including walking as quickly as he could.

An hour later things went terribly wrong. Daddy was coughing hard, and as a result suffered a burst abdomen, meaning that his recently stitched abdominal wall gave out, spilling out some of his insides. Anita raised an alarm and Dr. P. was there within five minutes. He and his juniors hastily tended to the gaping wound, temporarily taped it up, assembled a surgical team and began an emergency surgery within 45 minutes to repair the damage.

The cause of the problem? Daddy is 89, and many of Dr. P's colleagues told us that they'd have not removed the staples for at least 12-14 days after the surgery (instead of the nine days as happened here) and have taken other precautions to protect the healing wound.

The trauma of this second surgery and its consequences placed Daddy's life in the balance for the next couple of weeks. Apart from blood and fluid loss his complications included pneumonia, kidney malfunction, severe hospital acquired infections and heart complications. He was in pain and delirious or semi-conscious for several days. Anita and I cancelled our flights back to the US and postponed subsequent programs in this period. Fortunately, Daddy pulled through, slowly recovered and is now recuperating at home.

Despite his blunder my relations with Dr. P and his colleagues remained warm and cordial. I have repeatedly been asked two questions. First, did I genuinely harbor no ill will towards Dr. P, or did I just mask my true feelings? Second, had this happened in the US, would we have sued and made Dr. P pay heavily for his mistake?

To the first question, I obviously very much wish that Dr. P had played it safe and none of this had happened. But after it did, I still had good feelings about him. We continued to have an easy relationship and I'd even joke about the colorful shirts worn beneath the white coat of one of his cheery-faced residents when they'd visit us in Daddy's room. Here's why:
  • I believe Dr. P's prompt action and skill during the first surgery on September 22 was a big factor in enabling Daddy to pull through. So I attribute Daddy's being home and improving today to Dr. P's initial action
  • Dr. P is overall an accomplished surgeon who is also very responsive. Like many of his colleagues (and not at all like in the US) he had given me his cell phone number at the time of the first surgery and was directly accessible on that when I needed him. (Of course I tried not to abuse this privilege)
  • I perceive a big difference between negligence that may come from not putting in the required time or effort, and "just" a misjudgement. I knew that Dr. P never lacked for sincerity, dedication to Daddy's welfare, or hard work. His unfortunate miscalculation in removing staples prematurely stemmed from a concern about their continued insertion causing a surface infection. I'm sure the consequences will guide his future judgement and help other elderly patients
  • We were fairly high profile at Inlaks (partly because it is rare for both husband and wife to be simultaneously checked into adjoining deluxe wards, and that too by a son-in-law visiting from the US.) Dr. P's mistake was widely known among his colleagues. He paid enough of a price in that sense without me raising the subject with him
  • Dr. P as a person was decent, caring and straightforward. He was uncomfortable when other doctors tending to Daddy prescribed medications that he felt were unnecessary or even needlessly expensive (yes, some of that pharma - doctor linkage seemed to exist here, too.) As coordinating physician he struck off some of these medications or expressed reservations about them, even at the risk of running afoul of his colleagues. I felt I could trust his commitment and intentions
  • Once the second surgery became necessary, Dr. P did everything necessary to reduce its risk. General anesthesia for a second time in a frail patient is a major risk, so he performed this surgery using spinal tap and local anesthesia. He also got his team to waive overtime charges for performing it after hours. He closely monitored Daddy's condition and incessantly advised and encouraged him

Coming to the second question, how would we have acted had the same lapse occurred in the US? We wouldn't have sued Dr. P for all the reasons above. A sued physician pays a huge price even when he is fully insured. This price is in terms of damage to his record and reputation, the distraction of defending a lawsuit, and increases in future premiums.

However, in the US the extra cost following the second surgery may have exceeded $100,000 even at negotiated rates. A substantial chunk may have been payable out of pocket and I would probably have asked the hospital to waive or substantially reduce this. At Inlaks in India the extra charges only came to about $3,500. Given how everyone pulled so hard for Daddy's recovery I didn't seek any reduction in this. In fact when it was Daddy's time to leave he asked me to give some gifts to the staff that had attended to him so well.

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